Deforestation in 2020, in addition to vegetation that was felled in 2019 and did not burn, could fuel a new intense fire season in the Amazon, especially on public lands that are under the guardianship of the Union and States. In the first quarter of this year alone, 50% of deforestation recorded by INPE’s Deter system occurred in these areas.
The situation is especially concerning in undesignated public forests, vacant lands that are the target of land grabbing and that account for 15% of the Amazon. Between January and March, 33% of the felling occurred in this land category in the first three months of 2020, more than in any other. In the same period of 2019, the index was 22%.
Overall, deforestation in the first quarter of this year was 51% higher than the same period last year. “When the dry season arrives in the Amazon, these felled trees will become fuel for burning. This was the main ingredient of the 2019 fire season, a story that can repeat itself in 2020 if nothing is done to prevent it”, explains researcher Ane Alencar, director of Science at IPAM (Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon).
Alencar is the main author of a technical note that the institute launches on April 22th, the third covering fires in the Amazon. In this document, the authors gather the main information about the 2019 fire season, which caused astonishment across the planet, and signal the dangers that are lurking.
The number of hotspots registered in the region in 2019 was 81% higher until August than the average between 2011 and 2018. The greatest variation occurred in undesignated public forests: 37% more, another important indication of illegal land grabbing.
“This is theft of Brazilian property, and it must be resolved with the police,” says researcher Paulo Moutinho, from IPAM, one of the authors of the study. “These areas must be used for conservation. They are an important asset for biodiversity and for traditional populations, yes, but also for the Brazilian economy, as they generate the rain that feeds plantations and hydroelectric plants.”
Fuel for fire
The technical note also highlights that, last year, the drought alone did not explain the increase in fires, despite what the federal government suggested at the time, as the average volume of rain was normal for the period. The acute element was increasing deforestation: the first eight months of 2019 showed a 92% increase in the rate compared to the same period in 2018, according to data from Deter. “The Amazon is a humid forest and does not naturally catch fire. The fire has a culprit, and mankind is responsible,” says Alencar.
The command and control actions against the fires adopted in August, especially two federal decrees that prohibited the use of fire for two months and sent the Armed Forces to the Amazon, inhibited the fires. Such actions controlled the fire, but did not turn off the chainsaws. Deforestation continued to grow over the following four months (2,758 km2, according to Deter data).
“The monitoring of deforestation in the Amazon is as important today as it was 20 years ago, when Brazil felled more than 20 thousand square kilometers of forest per year. We cannot reach this level again”, says Moutinho. The authors fear that, without enforcement, the sum of trees on the ground, if burned, will fill the air with smoke again in 2020 – which, in turn, increases cases of respiratory problems in the population of the Amazon. In times of covid-19, these are perspectives of a scenario that nobody wants.
* Updated on April 29th, 2020.