Why Does the Forest Burn?
Tropical forests such as the Amazon are very humid and under natural conditions they rarely burn – unlike many forests in the western USA where fire is a natural part of the forest’s life cycle.
However, fires in the Amazon Basin in the last two decades have been driven primarily by two recent and related phenomena: drought and the expansion of ranching and agricultural activity. As forests are cleared for cattle or crops, they are first cut and then deliberately set on fire once the felled trees are dry enough to burn. The surrounding forest is typically wet enough to stop the fire at the edges of the new fields and pastures, however prolonged drought in the Amazon Basin means fires are escaping into neighboring intact forests and burning out of control across thousands of hectares.
As more forests are cleared, more people move in, new roads are opened, and new fields are cleared for cattle and crops–creating a vicious cycle that both intensifies the drought and exposes more forests to the threat of fire. Scientists are concerned that this cycle is leading the entire Amazon Basin towards a ‘tipping point,’ whereby the largest tropical forest in the world is fragmented such that it is no longer able to retain enough moisture to survive and transforms into savanna, with catastrophic implications for the global climate and life on earth. Much of the land being cleared is being financed by large-scale land speculators who use these farms and ranches as investments.
Government and economic incentives spur these practices, arguing that it is more financially rewarding to clear the land for agriculture or ranching rather than to leave the forest standing. This approach, however, doesn’t account for the extensive value of environmental services these forests provide in terms of water production, clean air distribution and carbon sequestration and storage. Nor does this approach recognize the sustainable livelihoods and rights that community-based forest management systems provide, creating a forest-based economy that is far more valuable than burning it down.