By Antonio José Paz Cardona
A dense layer of pollution has plagued the Brazilian cities of São Paulo, Manaus and Cuiabá for days on end, rolling in from the large number of fires burning mainly in the southern Amazon.
The country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) revealed that this year has seen the most fires since measurements began in 2012. The institute recorded 74,155 fires between Jan. 1 and Aug. 20, 2019, an increase of 85 percent compared with the same period last year. The states most affected are Mato Grosso, with 14,000 fires, Pará (9,818), Amazonas (7,150), Tocantins (5,776) and Rondônia (5,604).
Experts consulted by Mongabay Latam say that what is happening in Brazil is very serious and exceeds all forecasts, especially in a year that is not particularly atypical in terms of extreme weather events such as droughts. “This situation has been caused by humans who wanted to take advantage of the Amazon at any cost and it has got out of hand like never before,” said Dolors Armenteras, a biologist and professor at the National University of Colombia who has studied hotspots and fires in the Amazon biome for several years.
It took the blanketing of major urban centers before the world woke up to the gravity of what was happening in the Amazon, considered the lungs of the world and one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.
The cloud of pollution that covered the skies of cities such as São Paulo last week was the main trigger, when winds carried particulate matter from the Amazon jungle. Foster Brown, an environmental geochemist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, said the high levels of PM2.5 (the smallest particulate matter which can cause serious health problems when trapped in airways) was most concerning.
Using data from PurpleAir, a monitoring platform for particulate matter, he showed that along the Peru-Brazil-Bolivia border in the Brazilian state of Acre, the concentration of PM2.5 exceeded 600 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³) on Aug. 16 and was close to 500 µg/m³ on Aug. 19. The maximum level recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 25 µg/m³.
“We have a high record of fire outbreaks and it’s taking up a large area of the Amazon. And not only there, but also in the Cerrado and Pantanal biomes,” said Carlos Durigan, the Brazil country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). According to Durigan, this is very serious as the dry season has only just started, and can last until early November. August and September are the most critical months.
Durigan said that what is happening is not just due to heat. “It’s also due to a weakening of environmental policies and the crisis of government monitoring agencies. We’re going through a very tough period,” he said.
Liliana Dávalos, a biologist and researcher at Stony Brook University in New York, agrees. “Environmental regulations are not being complied with, in some cases they have even been repealed, and regional and national guidelines have been pointed out as openly benefitting land speculation, livestock and industrial agriculture. Policy changes represent an opportunity to transform the rainforest.”
Dávalos acknowledged that this phenomenon occurs every year during the dry season and immediately increases the frequency of fires thereafter. However, she said that this year the fires have increased disproportionately by more than 60 percent from last year. That’s well below INPE’s estimate of an 85 percent increase, yet still alarmingly high.
Armenteras emphasized the gravity of the situation.
“There have been about 10,000 active outbreaks [of fire] in the last week,” she said. “A very general approximation would show that an active hotspot could be associated with affecting 100 hectares,” or around a million hectares (2.5 million acres) in that week.
“This means we are talking about 7.5 million hectares potentially affected so far this year in Brazil,” Armenteras said — an area greater than the size of Ireland.
“This is outside the checks that had been completed in the country to reduce deforestation and associated fires,” she added. “It’s very serious. We will have to wait a long time to have official figures on the areas that have burned.”
In addition to this, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions increased exponentially after Aug. 10 “in an exaggerated manner,” Armenteras said, which is why the high levels of air pollution have become evident in Brazil’s rural areas and large cities.
Biodiversity on high alert
Durigan said there is a criminal element to the fires being set to clear huge areas for expanding large-scale agriculture and livestock operations, mainly in the southern Amazon. There is a great arc of deforestation there where protected natural areas and indigenous territories are being impacted.
Biodiversity is being hit hard. “We know that land-use change is one of the causes of biodiversity loss and that a million endangered species mentioned in the last IPBES report are at greater risk with events such as this,” Armenteras said, referring to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
Some species with low mobility, such as insects and vertebrates including turtles, lizards and amphibians, are unlikely to escape the fires. Armenteras said the consequences for fauna are yet to be well measured. In terms of vegetation, very old forests are being lost, which is generating more carbon emissions, which will be impossible to capture again.
She said the huge problem is that much of the forests will not recover, even if they are not completely burned. “Scientific studies still don’t tell us how many years it will take to recover, but it takes decades, even centuries, for them to recover to just a little of what they were, so they won’t be the same again,” she said.
Microbiota, soil microorganisms, are also lost, which is an issue that requires a lot more research, according to Armenteras.
The increase in deforestation and the number of fires is something that should not be viewed in isolation from what may happen in the Amazon in the future. Dávalos said that that every fire dries up and exposes more soil, and leaves new areas of forest unprotected, making them easier to continue being cut down. “There are studies that show that the Amazon is entering a new regime of greater drought and will require more time for natural regeneration,” she said.
Experts say that what is currently happening in Brazil should not be underestimated. If deforestation and fires continue, the effects will be devastating not only in Brazil, but in all Amazonian countries.
Among other impacts, Dávalos said, the flow of water into the basins that comprise the Amazon will decline, affecting fishing and agriculture, deepening the threat crisis to species — from bromeliads and fungi to big cats and tapirs — and worsening regional and global climate change. “At this moment it is indispensable to grow the Amazon, to restore forests and jungles in order to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. By burning and cutting down forests, we are moving towards a near future of lower agricultural productivity, less food security and more social and economic instability,” she said.
Other organizations, including WWF, have also expressed concern about the fires in the Amazon. Ricardo Bosshard, director of WWF Chile, said this is not only a tragedy for the Amazon countries, but for the entire world, and that as the host country of the next climate change summit, he hopes Chile can “put the urgency of taking measures to strengthen policies against deforestation, as well as plans to reforest and restore native forests strongly on the agenda, as these are key issues for preventing forest fires and mitigating emissions.”
Marina Silva, Brazil’s former environment minister, who participated in an event held in Bogotá on Aug. 22 by the Center for Sustainable Development Goals for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the environmental crisis is related to the ethical and political crisis in Brazil. “Principles and values must be clear so that policies are lasting,” she said.
She added that the Amazon is being destroyed under a regressive government system that is ignoring the environment. “We have to mobilize for the Amazon. Resources of thousands of years cannot be sacrificed for the profit of a few decades. We need to think of a new model.”
Source: This article was published by Mongabay