21 Nov 2019

Amazon fires: what happens next?

Images of raging forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon sparked worldwide condemnation during August. Several Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas have suffered – this in a country that had been lauded for its conversion from environmental villain to conservation hero. How has this happened?

An artist's impression of the Amazon fires this summer © OSORIOartist / Shutterstock
An artist's impression of the Amazon fires this summer © OSORIOartist / Shutterstock
By James Lowen

Stark images ignited global horror. The Amazonian rainforest ablaze. The blackened Brazilian metropolis of São Paulo, choking with carbon. Leaders from G7 countries condemned August’s environmental atrocity. Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, was swiftly cast as villain in a tragedy afflicting communities, creatures and climate alike. What lessons might we draw from Brazil’s rapid parabola from environmental laggard to leader… and back again?

Fifteen years ago, Brazil stood on conservationists’ naughty step. Between 1988 and 2004, Brazilian forest the extent of Poland was destroyed by grileiros, squatters legally entitled to establish land ownership by clearing terrain ‘sullied’ by trees. Vast expanses of leafy, biodiversity-rich, carbon-storing forest were supplanted by soy ranches and wandering cattle. Their destruction emitted nearly 1% of all carbon dioxide produced by humans since the Industrial Revolution. Woe betide anyone who obstructed the grileiros. The outsiders thought nothing of violence against indigenous communities and other land claimants. In Pará state alone, 475 forest-defending activists were assassinated between 1985 and 2002.

Unexpectedly, things changed in 2005. A nun, Dorothy Stang, who supported local farmers striving to save their forest was murdered. This proved a killing too far. Amid national outrage, President Lula da Silva launched an offensive against deforestation. He banned new land claims and logging permits, boosted government enforcement capability, declared dozens of protected areas and indigenous territories, and paid families to safeguard forest. Meanwhile, soy and beef industries responded to consumer pressure by ceasing to sell products from recently deforested terrain.

Conservationists rejoiced as Amazon deforestation halved from 2004 to 2008, and plummeted 80% by 2012. By 2010, 44% – an area the size of Greenland – was protected or designated as indigenous land. The emission of 3.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide was avoided. No more an environmental vandal, Brazil became fêted worldwide. Remarkably, it spared forests while simultaneously boosting agricultural production – cattle by one-fifth and soy by two-thirds. Brazil had decoupled development from deforestation.

An aerial view of deforestation in the Amazon © Richard Whitcombe / Shutterstock

Lula da Silva’s deforestation-reducing initiatives derived their legitimacy and impetus from an existing piece of legislation called the Forest Code. No single law worldwide has levied such stringent demands on forest owners. Launched in 1965, it required private landowners to set aside 20—50% of native forests as ‘legal reserves’, a proportion upped to 80% in 1996.

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But it was a law under pressure. Come 2012, a year into Dilma Rousseff’s presidency, powerful agribusiness interests were fed up with the Code’s constraints. They lobbied successfully for dilutions to the Forest Code. The ‘New Forest Code’ granted amnesty for landholders who had illegally deforested 290,000 km2 prior to 2008. Some conservationists were appalled. If old crimes could be pardoned, how could the New Forest Code realistically deter fresh deforestation?

Such fears were warranted. Rousseff declined to sign the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, which pledged to eliminate all deforestation by 2030; she would commit only to ending illegal deforestation. Amazon deforestation started rising and, despite two brief downticks, continued to burgeon during Michel Temer’s presidency (2016–18).

But it is the rapid surge in deforestation during Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency that has really riled conservationists. Riding, in the words of The Washington Post, “a wave of voter rage” and right-wing nationalism, Bolsonaro took power in January 2019. His effect on the environment appears swift and intense.

Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro at a rally © Antonio Scorza / Shutterstock

Bolsonaro is opening up protected lands for commercial use, pressing plans for new transport infrastructure that will facilitate loggers’ access to Amazonian forests. He has eviscerated government bodies protecting the environment and managing conservation areas. Bolsonaro has sacked senior government environmentalists, including the head of the satellite agency that monitors changes in forest cover. He scoffed at government data suggesting that deforestation rates had reached a decade-long peak in July.

This is the context in which August’s forest fires were perceived worldwide. Granted, fire is a regular dry-season phenomenon. But Brazil’s satellite agency detected 74,000 fires between New Year’s Day and 20 August – 84% up on 2018 and the most conflagrations since 2010.

“The full repercussions will only be clear in the medium or long term”, says Pedro Develey, Director of SAVE Brasil (BirdLife Partner). Develey fears we will lose more forest and biodiversity, as the distribution of many fires overlaps with that of globally threatened birds. Globally threatened Amazonian species found in at-risk Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) include Golden-crowned Manakin Lepidothrix vilasboasi (Vulnerable) in Novo Progresso; Golden Parakeet Guaruba guarouba (Vulnerable) in Cristalino/Serra do Cachimbo; Rondonia Bushbird Clytoctantes atrogularis (Vulnerable) in Alto Sucunduri; and Rio Branco Antbird Cercomacra carbonaria (Critically Endangered) in Campinas e Várzeas do Rio Branco.

Continued monitoring of the extent and impact of the fires is clearly needed. BirdLife is addressing this need via a project funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative that is assessing how to use remote-sensing data to monitor Key Biodiversity Areas. But what about the fires’ impacts beyond biodiversity?

The Golden parakeet (Vulnerable) could be impacted by the fires © Fernando Calmon / Shutterstock

BirdLife Partners are among voices expressing concerns about the fires’ climatic consequences. The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service calculates 228 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent were lost from the world’s biggest terrestrial carbon sink during the first eight months of 2019.

People are suffering too. Indigenous territories no longer seem sacrosanct, suffering 68 fires in a single week described by Survival International as perhaps the “worst moment for the Amazon’s indigenous people” for three decades.

Bolsonaro’s attitude appears to have emboldened settlers, ranchers and loggers. Seeking rights for habitation, soy cultivation (mainly for animal feed), livestock grazing or logging, they no longer fear prosecution for destroying forest. “Poorly regulated land ownership is a key driver of fires and deforestation,” says Develey. “With so much land-grabbing and illegal occupation, oversight of the New Forest Code is difficult.”

Fires and deforestation are not problems unique to Brazil, of course. This year, fires have devastated vast tracts of Bolivia, Colombia and Paraguay.” Small-scale fires may be ecologically acceptable,” says José Luis Cartes, Chief Executive Officer of BirdLife Partner, Guyra Paraguay. “But the intensity, frequency and extent of this year’s fires mean we envisage considerable impact on Paraguay’s wildlife”. In Paraguay’s already fragmented Atlantic Forest (see page 26), many fires are started to clear land for illegal marijuana cultivation. Birds such as Black-fronted Piping-guan Pipile jacutinga (Endangered) and IBAs such as Mbaracayú Forest Nature Reserve are at risk.

Indigenous territories no longer seem sacrosanct, suffering 68 fires in a single week

So worried is Guyra Paraguay that it joined forces with other NGOs, including BirdLife International and SAVE Brasil, to launch a manifesto demanding “immediate and lasting action from the governments of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay”. Signatories criticise current government policies for “incentivising deforestation and unsustainable productive practices” and demand “incentives to keep the forest standing”.

Media profile has raised the ante. “In Brazil, everyone has been talking about our forests. I’ve rarely witnessed that”, says Develey. Agribusinesses have been worried about the negative repercussions for exports, supporting a campaign demanding the end of deforestation on public lands in Amazon. Conservation of the Amazon has become a concern of productive industries, not just environmentalists. The level of distress has finally roused South America’s politicians. In September, seven national leaders (including Bolsonaro) established disaster response and satellite-monitoring initiatives, and pledged reforestation.

The rise and fall of Brazil and its Forest Code offer salutary lessons of global relevance. “Brazil was briefly a shining example,” says Bryna Griffin, the head of BirdLife’s Forests Programme. “But then political winds changed, and gains were quickly and dramatically lost.” Brazil’s experience demonstrates that increasing law enforcement, expanding protecting areas, recognising indigenous territories, and combining carrots with sticks for agribusinesses can work to reduce deforestation.  “Brazil’s example shows that we have the tools to make conservation work, but only if we choose to use them”, says Griffin.

Saving the Amazon requires land regulation, effective oversight, international pressure and respect for legislation. But whether we are in Brazil or elsewhere, we each have a role to play: as consumers we need to rethink our daily habits. Develey points to the market signal of buying environmentally certified products. Although we did not physically ignite Brazil’s fires ourselves, our purchasing choices may have helped fan the flames. As we express outrage at future images of flaming forests, we might do well to remember that change can also start at home.