The Amazon’s dry season is coming to an end, but there’s persistent concern about the effects of its devastating wildfires. One challenge to determining and publicizing all of the effects and causes is the science-shunning administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has denied the devastation of these fires. Bolsonaro has blamed the media for exaggerating them, and even actor–activist Leonardo DiCaprio for supposedly funnelling money to NGOs that deliberately set the fires.
Especially chilling for scientists has been the firing of Ricardo Galvão, director of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), after INPE satellite data pointed to an uptick of deforestation. This was politically inconvenient for Bolsonaro, who has been popular with Brazil’s agribusiness interests. These have been seeking to clear land for beef and other farming.
“The firing of Ricardo Galvão…after Bolsonaro doubted INPE’s scientific results showing a sharp increase in rates of deforestation is, for me, another clear example of how the current government is trying to control the freedom of speech of Brazilian scientists,” says ecologist Filipe França. França researches how human activities and other factors affect ecosystems, for instance how logging in the Amazon weakens dung beetles. “It is really frustrating and worrisome to know that Galvão and many other key positions in research centres…are now being occupied by officers from the Armed Forces and military policy without as much knowledge and experience as former occupants.” Along with the replacements of science officials, there have been budget cuts to science agencies.
All this affects França directly. In November 2019, he and several coauthors published a letter to the editor in the journal Global Change Biology using the DETER-B system, which maps deforestation based on satellite images. Their research shows that the number of active fires in August 2019 was almost three times as high as the number in August 2018. It was also the highest figure since 2010, which had been a drought year. The researchers specify that “the enormous plumes of smoke that reached high into the atmosphere can only be explained by the combustion of large amounts of biomass.”
This directly contradicts the Brazilian government’s assertions that the 2019 fires are within the normal range.
Forest area burned in Novo Progresso, Brazil in August 2019 (Photo by Gustavo Basso)
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Certain types of fires are necessary, the paper argues. But the data suggests that the August fires were associated not with maintaining agricultural land (whose “farm‐fallow fires are essential for the food security and livelihoods of some of the Amazon’s poorest people”, including indigenous groups). Nor were the fires the result of arson involving land disputes.
Instead, according to this analysis, the fires were set in order to burn trees that had been cut as part of land clearance. Thus, the 2019 deforestation actually peaked in July. This is consistent with a rise in fires in the following months. As França explains, “There is normally a 3-6 week lag between deforestation and fires, as it takes time for the felled vegetation to dry out.”
Four authors are listed on this paper, yet four other authors decided to remove their names from the publication, out of fear of publicly challenging the government’s claims. Of the four authors whose names have been published, three are based at British universities. The other one is França, a postdoctoral researcher at the Universidade Federal do Pará. Asked whether he was nervous about attaching his name to the paper, he says, “I believe research should be an independent endeavor and as such, it is not researchers’ role to confirm or deny any government`s discourse.”
The Prevfogo forest fire brigade in PDS Nova Fronteira, Brazil, in September 2019. Government budget … [+]
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The international and domestic outcry that followed the August fires, and the politically convenient misinformation around it, has led to some positives. Bolsonaro eventually sent in military forces to control the blazes (though he rejected offers of international help). He also signed a 60-day ban on land clearance fires. The Global Biology Change letter reports a 35% reduction of active fires in September (which may be due to both the fire ban and to rainfall).
Before Bolsonaro, international pressure had an effect as well. This helped usher in the Lula government’s deforestation action plan of 2004–2012, which massively reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Yet França and his coauthors warn that the successful earlier plan is at odds with the existing government’s weakening of enforcement and monitoring of the Amazon.
Despite the government’s attempts to undermine scientific research, França remains idealistic. He also urges attention to the needs of small-scale farmers, including agroforestry and alternatives to fire-dependent agriculture:
“Until there are viable alternatives to fire, I believe we need much greater investment to make fire-dependent agriculture safer. This requires investing in policies and practices that prevent fires escaping from target areas (e.g. new approaches to build fire breaks, better information on fire risks, well-resourced fire brigades), as well as to improve the resilience of small-scale/traditional landholders to the local burdens caused when uncontrolled fires pass over their lands. A key message from our study is also that these policies should support marginalized smallholders to develop farming practices more adapted to the changing climate conditions.”
Brazilian farmer Manoel Jose Leite shows an area reafforested with açai trees in Anapu, Brazil in … [+]
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