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Climate change and energy

The Brazilian Amazon is on fire—here’s why that’s bad news for the planet

August 21, 2019
Deforestation in the state of Rondônia, in western Brazil.
Deforestation in the state of Rondônia, in western Brazil.NASA Earth Observatory

Forest fires have soared in the Brazilian Amazon this year, sharpening concerns about rising deforestation and climate emissions under the nation’s new far-right president.

The news: More than 70,000 forest fires have broken out throughout the rain forest so far this year, the largest number in at least five years and a more than 80% increase over the same period last year, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). On Monday, smoke from the fires, coupled with clouds and a powerful cold front, darkened the city of São Paulo, some 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) away.

What’s driving the increase? Several factors are likely at play. Researchers have warned that climate change is making the Amazon rain forest more susceptible to wildfires “by increasing the intensity and frequency of droughts.” But local reports say farmers in some areas are deliberately setting fires to clear land for crops or cattle ranching.

Environmental groups say these farmers have been emboldened by President Jair Bolsonaro, who during his campaign pledged to open up the rain forest for more farming and mining. Ever since, his administration has worked to weaken environmental guardrails.

Bolsonaro recently fired the director of INPE, MIT-trained physicist Ricardo Galvão, following the publication of statistics that highlighted rising deforestation in Brazil. On Wednesday, in a bold bit of nonsense, he said nongovernmental organizations could be setting the fires “to bring shame on his government after he cut their funding.” 

Why does it matter? The Amazon proper, which spans nine nations, is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. It accounts for around 17% of the world’s carbon trapped in vegetation on land. (It’s also, of course, a rich source of biodiversity and the oxygen we breath.)

Wildfires alone, not the fires deliberately set for deforestation, can pump out billions of tons of carbon dioxide during drought years, recent research found.

Amazon deforestation rates had been tumbling for years, largely thanks to the “Save the Rain Forest” movement and stronger land-use regulations. But they’ve risen significantly in Brazil this year: an area rain forest “roughly the size of a football pitch” disappears every minute.

(See “Brazil's presidential election could mean billions of tons of additional greenhouse gases.”)

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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