© Lucas Landau / Greenpeace

Why is Brazil ablaze?

Explainer / 10 Aug 2021

Right now, the Amazon is burning. The dry season – May to October – has become the burning season. And this year, following the trend of previous years, the burning season has started early.

What is Brazil burning season?

For centuries, small-scale fires have been used to clear land for agriculture. Forests in Brazil are cut during the rains between December and April and then burnt when it’s dry. As larger agricultural industries encroach on areas of the Amazon, Cerrado, Atlantic Forest and Gran Chaco, the fires are getting worse. The fires are often lit by those looking to lay claim to land, clearing primary tropical forest for a short-term profit. Later the land can be sold on, in some cases it can be used as cattle pasture or further down the line, soy cultivation.

During last year’s burning season, the Brazilian Amazon experienced more than 2,250 major fires, destroying 2.2 million hectares of forest. That is an area approximately the size of Wales. Satellite technology run by the Amazon Conservation Association can map the fires in real time. So far this year almost 250 fires have been recorded – the first beginning as early as the 19th and 20th of May. The evidence shows those fires have been concentrated on land that was deforested in 2020.

Scientists are worried that this year’s burning season could be particularly bad. The Amazon plays a key role in recycling water and dispersing rainfall across South America. But Brazil is currently in the midst of a serious and prolonged drought. The drought is being exacerbated by deforestation, which has disrupted the natural rain cycle and is making the Amazon more vulnerable to fire.

Why does it matter?

Through photosynthesis, plants and trees remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and lock it away as carbon in their roots, trunks and stems. In this way forests like the Amazon, can act as carbon sinks, making them crucial allies in the fight against climate change. Primary tropical forests in particular have irreplaceable carbon sequestration mechanisms.

But what forests take, they can also give back. Through deforestation and forest fires, trees release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere, turning the forest from carbon sink, to carbon source. The pastures and cropland that often replace these forests absorb only a fraction of the carbon. Scientists are warning that the Amazon is already in danger of emitting more than it absorbs.

Tropical forests aren’t just vital in our fight against climate change. They are also an essential home to indigenous communities and much of the world’s biodiversity. Hundreds of thousands of people call the Amazon home, as do 40 thousand species of plant, 3,000 freshwater fish species, and more than 370 types of reptiles. Deforestation and the subsequent fires puts all that at risk.

How can we help?

Forest fires in the Amazon are inextricably linked to deforestation. If the forests weren’t cleared, the land wouldn’t be burnt. To tackle the drivers of deforestation, we must connect consumers, companies and financial institutions with the consequences of economic decisions. Deforestation in Brazil is driven by the production and consumption of just a handful of commodities, such as beef and soy. These commodities are traded globally. Therefore, it is essential that consumers and investors know that economic decisions made in Europe or China can lead to destruction in the Amazon or other tropical forests. To make these connections, reliable data is key.

Global supply chains are complex and opaque – it can be difficult to establish if a product has a deforestation risk. That’s why the Trase project – a supply chain mapping programme created by Global Canopy in partnership with SEI – is an essential tool. Covering almost two thirds of forest risk supply chains it enables companies and investors to see if their money can be linked to deforestation. But more is needed – that’s why the launch of the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) was a significant step forward. It will deliver a framework for organisations to report and act on evolving nature-related risks. In turn that should help to shift global financial flows away from nature-negative outcomes and towards nature-positive ones.

In the Amazon last year, thousands of man-made fires destroyed an area of land the size of Wales. This year, extensive deforestation and drought could make the burning season even worse. Combating deforestation and fires will require global cooperation beyond just companies and finance. The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) presents an opportunity for governments and other world leaders to take bold action. By strengthening commitments, building partnerships and pushing for significant reform, we can assure that 2022 is a better year for forests, climate and people.

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