Big dry and legal doubts fuel progress to new forest burn boom in Brazil



Posted on 03 September 2010  | 
Amazonian rainforest being burnt to create pasture for ranching, Brazil.
Amazonian rainforest being burnt to create pasture for ranching, Brazil.
© WWF-Canon / Mauri RAUTKARIEnlarge
Brasília, Brazil – High temperatures, low humidity and uncertainty over the future of forest laws are fuelling a boost in forest fires over much of Brazil.

Overnight on August 30, satellite data collected by the National Institute of Space Researches (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais – INPE) showed 177 fire spots in central and central west Brazil and also in the north, south and south east of the country.

The 45,860 forest fires recorded so far this year is nearly 50 per cent higher than from the equivalent January to August period in 2009, putting Brazil on track to exceed the fire totals for 2007, the highest in the last five years.

While high temperatures – 30-35 degrees C in central Brazil – and humidity readings of under 20 per cent are undoubtedly contributing, Alberto Setzer, INPEs Forest Fire Monitoring coordinator, believes that the increase of fire occurrences this year is also related to the undefined future of the Brazilian Forest Code, which has been under severe attack by some sectors of the Brazilian Congress.

The current forest-burning season will not figure on the next release of annual deforestation rates, but the intense degradation facilitates illegal deforestation.

“Soon, many of these areas will no longer be forests,” Setzer said. “In fact, burning the forest is usually the first and cheapest step to clean out a forest area.”

Blame put on "the usual illegal practices"


The proposed forest code changes particularly downgrade protected area requirements for private land, steep land and watercourse fringes. According to the Institute, 130 state and federal reserves also registered fire spots inside their areas or within their buffer zones.

Denise Hamú, WWF-Brazil's CEO, agrees with the possibility of criminal fires being connected to the Forest Bill currently under discussion at the Congress.

“The uncertainty about the future of our Forest Code may perfectly be leading some of these criminal fires,” she said. “The possibility of reducing the compulsorily protected areas within properties may be encouraging farmers to prepare new areas for agriculture or cattle breeding, in advance, with an eye on the proposed amendment in the law.”

Brazil’s Environment Minister, Izabella Teixeira, has called for investigations to identify possible criminal actions behind these fires which she attributed to “the usual illegal practices”.

One of Brazil’s leading climate researchers, Dr Antonio Marengo of the Centre of Terrestrial System Sciences, said “We cannot assure the unusual season we are going through right now is caused by the climate changes. But it is, no doubt, a picture of what may happen in the future, when droughts and high temperatures will become more frequent and severe.”

Strong and severe laws and public policies seem to be the only possible adaptation measures for a future of climate changes, as related to forest fire, he said, calling for more preparation of local governments, populations and hospitals for more and more smoky atmosphere, lung diseases and fire disasters.

“These are palliative measures, of course, but theres not much that can be done, once the use of fire in the agriculture is cultural in Brazil,” Dr. Marengo said.

For him, the hope relies on education for the future generations.


Amazonian rainforest being burnt to create pasture for ranching, Brazil.
Amazonian rainforest being burnt to create pasture for ranching, Brazil.
© WWF-Canon / Mauri RAUTKARI Enlarge

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