Amazon Rainforest Fires

A staggering 26.4 million acres of Brazil’s Amazon were scorched in 2023, a 35.4% increase from the previous year
Deforestation from agriculture and cattle-ranching is a main driver of forest fires in the Amazon
Expanding and securing land rights of Indigenous peoples is one of the best ways to protect the Amazon

Rainforest Foundation Us’s Response to the Amazon Fires

Healthy communities can manage and protect their lands better than anyone. Building on 35 years of steady, dedicated work with Indigenous partners in the Amazon, Rainforest Foundation US provides direct technical support in legal defense, land titling, monitoring, and institutional strengthening, so that Indigenous communities may continue to manage their rainforest territories with the knowledge and care they have sustained for thousands of years.

Throughout the Amazon, we are supporting partners to actively prevent and respond to the threat of fires by:

How do Indigenous Peoples and Land Rights help prevent fires?

Indigenous peoples are the most effective forest stewards. Rainforests held by Indigenous peoples have a lower presence of fire and lower fire temperatures, meaning they’re better able to resist forest loss. Data also shows that rainforests managed by Indigenous peoples contain greater carbon density than state-managed forests and foster higher levels of biodiversity.

It’s simple: One of the best ways to protect the Amazon from destruction from fire, mining, industrial ranching, and illegal-logging is to secure and expand the land rights of Indigenous peoples living in these territories. Ensuring Indigenous peoples and local communities have rightful governance and control over their territories, as well as access to the necessary technology, training, and resources to manage and protect their territories is crucial to preventing fires and protecting the biodiversity and cultural heritage of the region.

The satellite map below displays real-time fires and Indigenous peoples’ lands. The majority of fires are observed outside Indigenous territories, typically ceasing at their boundaries.,

An area the size of the state of Tennessee burned in the Brazilian Amazon in 2023

While deforestation in the Amazon decreased significantly last year, the forest continued to burn at an alarming rate. For the first time since 2018, the clearance rate was less than 10,000 sq km in the 12 months until 31 July. Still more encouraging, the loss of tree cover in Indigenous territories fell by 73%. Despite these statistics, a staggering 26.4 million acres (10.7 million hectares) of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest burned in 2023—an area comparable in size to the U.S. state of Tennessee—according to MapBiomas Fire Monitor. This represents a 35.4% increase from the previous year.

On average close to 1 million trees are still being chopped down or burned every day in the Amazon. Countless more died because of the drought, and this will worsen the degradation of the forest. Overall, the Amazon was worse off in 2023 than the year prior.

The Impact of Climate Change, El Niño and Unprecedented Drought:

In 2023, researchers’ forecasts came to fruition as the peak of the Amazon fire season aligned with an ongoing El Niño event—a climate phenomenon characterized by the warming of sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, which affects rainfall patterns in the Amazon. This perilous combination led to drier conditions, thereby intensifying forest fires.

Indeed, in 2023, the Amazon experienced the most severe drought in its recorded history, with rivers dropping to record lows, adversely affecting communities and endangering wildlife.

While El Niño significantly contributed to the reduction in rainfall, thereby exacerbating the 2023 drought, preliminary scientific analyses have determined that the drought’s extreme severity was mainly due to high temperatures associated with climate change. The probability of such an extreme drought occurring was increased thirtyfold by the climate crisis.

This convergence of climate change, unprecedented temperatures, extreme drought, deforestation, and wildfires underscores the growing concerns for the Amazon’s future.

Amazon fires made global headlines in 2019—four years later were they as bad?

Unfortunately, they were.

In August 2019, massive smoke plumes drifted thousands of miles from the burning Amazon and settled over Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, blocking out the sun. The world’s attention focused on Jair Bolsonaro’s administration as he opened the Amazon for further exploitation by incentivizing land invasions, mining, ranching and large-scale agriculture, the primary drivers of tropical forest fires.

Despite international pressures, the situation has continued to deteriorate.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell by 50% in 2023 compared to the previous year, showing that President Lula da Silva’s efforts to restore environmental protections dismantled by Bolsonaro have achieved some positive results. However, Lula’s administration—weakened in the face of a conservative Congress—has been unable to prevent the passage of legislation that continues to dismantle environmental safeguards and Indigenous peoples’ rights in favor of agribusiness interests. The future of the Amazon hangs in the balance.

Area Burned in Brazil’s Amazon Annually  Since 2019

Why Does the Rainforest Burn?

Tropical forests such as the Amazon are very humid, and under natural conditions they rarely burn—unlike many forests in the western United States where fire is a natural part of the forest’s life cycle.

In the last few decades, two interrelated phenomena have driven Amazon fires: drought, and the expansion of industrial agriculture.

Forests cleared for cattle ranching, agriculture, logging, or illegal mining are cut and then deliberately set on fire once the felled trees are dry enough to burn. Typically, the surrounding forest is wet enough to stop the fire at the edges of new fields and pastures. But prolonged drought in the Amazon basin—linked to climate change and deforestation—means fires are escaping into neighboring intact forests and burning out of control across thousands of acres.

As more forests are cleared, new roads are built, more people move into the area, and new fields are cleared for cattle and crops, creating a vicious cycle that both intensifies the drought and exposes more forests to fire threats.

Scientists warn this cycle is leading the entire Amazon towards a ‘tipping point,’ believed to occur when the combined effects of deforestation and degradation surpass a threshold of 20% to 25%. A new study warned that the Amazon rainforest could reach this ‘tipping point’ by as soon as 2050. At that point, the world’s largest tropical forest would become so fragmented that it would no longer retain sufficient moisture to sustain itself, leading to catastrophic consequences for the global climate and life on Earth.

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Didier Devers
Chief of Party – USAID Guatemala

Didier has been coordinating the USAID-funded B’atz project since joining Rainforest Foundation US in April 2022. He holds a Master’s in Applied Anthropology and a Bachelor’s in Geography. Before joining the organization, Didier worked for 12 years in Central and South America on issues of transparency, legality, governance, and managing stakeholders’ processes in the environmental sector. Prior to that he worked on similar issues in Central Africa. He speaks French, Spanish, and English, and is based in Guatemala.