Fourfold increase in fires magnifies threat to Brazil’s Cerrado

Posted on 22 October 2010

Brazil’s crucial Cerrado region leads the tally of areas most damaged by a crippling drought in the country, with nearly 60,000 fire outbreaks recorded in the five months to September.

Brasilia, Brazil: Brazil’s crucial Cerrado region leads the tally of areas most damaged by a crippling drought in the country, with nearly 60,000 fire outbreaks recorded in the five months to September.

The fires, which have increased 350 per cent over the same period in 2009, have devastated large areas of some Cerrado national parks, threaten to cause large scale changes to vegetation cover and are being reflected in a marked rise in respiratory complaints in the human population.

Most fires are attributed to human causes, with many being set illegally – an ever-present factor currently accelerated due to a legislative challenge to Brazil’s Forest Code.

“The explosive increase in the number of fires can be attributed to both climate conditions and deliberate burning by human beings to make way for farmland,” says Mercedes Bustamante, a research professor at the University of Brasilia.

“While this translates into greater CO2 emissions coming from the Cerrado, it’s also reducing the soil’s ability to hold water. In the dry season, this means more droughts, and in the rainy season, more floods. The situation could become even worse if some of the proposed Forest Code reforms are passed.”

Currently, Brazilian law allows the clearing of 80 per cent of forest farms in the Cerrado. But in the Amazon, farmers are required to preserve up to 80 per cent of natural vegetation. Proposed changes to the National Forest Code may grant amnesty those who illegally cut down and reduce the protection of forests on the banks of rivers, slopes and hilltops across the country.

The fires are also damaging important animal habitats, especially that of the giant anteater and nesting birds. In 2005, a large portion of the Brasilia Botanic Garden was lost to fires and reports suggest that few native species have returned.

Human health is likewise suffering. A survey conducted by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation’s National Public Health School shows that people exposed to smoke from the Cerrado hotspots, especially children and the elderly, face increased risks of asthma, bronchitis and even heart attacks.

Mercedes Bustamante says more action is needed to address the problems the Cerrado faces, and expects the government’s first step will be to expand its analysis of the damage done by this year’s fires:

“Identifying where the fires were concentrated, and whether they were naturally occurring or deliberately set is an important first step in developing better policies to protect the Cerrado,” she says.

Geographer and local NGO representative Mara Moscosos adds that while she believes that the majority of this year’s devastating Cerrado fires are natural, the impact has been worsened by ineffective public policy. She points to a lack of campaigns targeting the public, as well as poor surveillance and inspection of illegal burning as major sore spots. 

WWF-Brazil CEO Denise Hamú underscores the need for action by adding that climate change will only reinforce tendencies towards more days a year without rainfall.

“Better public policy is of the utmost importance to protect the Cerrado and allow this massive area of savanna to recuperate. It has already lost half of its original vegetation,” she says.

For more information contact

Aldem Bourscheit
Communications Officer
Cerrado Pantanal Programme
+55 61 3364-7483

Fires burn in Brazil's Cerrado, a vast savanna that covers nearly 21 per cent of the country's total area. Nearly 60,000 fire outbreaks have been recorded in the five months to September 2010. Mato Grosso, Brazil.
© Luiz Fernandes / WWF-Brazil