2020 Amazon fire season

Yearly deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is 180% of where it was this time last year.

The 2019 fire season was devastating, but 2020 is slated to be even worse.

In 2020, firefighting efforts must battle deforestation, blazes, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

What Happened in 2019?

At 3 PM on August 19th, 2019, the skies over Sao Paulo, Brazil went completely dark. Massive smoke plumes drifted thousands of miles from the burning Amazon and settled over Brazil’s largest city. By year’s end, over 7 million hectares (17.9 million acres) of Brazil’s Amazon had burned, almost the size of West Virginia.

The fires caught global attention and cast a sharp spotlight on the administration of Jair Bolsonaro, which had publicly promised to open the Amazon for further exploitation and incentivized the expansion of ranching and large scale agricultural development, some of the primary drivers of tropical forest fires.

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.

IS 2020 AS BAD AS 2019?

Large-scale tropical forest deforestation often occurs many months, sometimes years, before they are set on fire, the bulk of the burning season occurring roughly between July and October. Satellite imagery gathered in 2019 and 2020 shows that tropical deforestation across the world has risen steadily over the last 14 months. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is already 83% above where it was this time last year, which means the 2020 fire season is expected to be comparable to 2019, pushing the region ever closer to the ‘tipping point.’ As of Sept 8th, fires in the Brazilian Amazon are actually worse than this time last year.

Adding to the worsening outlook for Amazon deforestation in 2020 are two additional factors:

  1. The COVID-19 pandemic, which is making it difficult to mobilize resources to communities in lockdown who are threatened by fires or deforestation, and
  2. The reduction or pure absence oflaw enforcement activities performed by national environmental agencies due to the COVID-19 lockdown or government orders.

This short video shows the location of fires in both the 2019 and 2020 fire seasons. Note that early in the year (March and February) the fires are concentrated in the northern Amazon while the much more intense fires in the southern Amazon occur in August and September. Green indicates indigenous territories in the Amazon Region (RAISG). Red indicates fires on non-indigenous lands, orange indicates fires on indigenous lands (FIRMS).

How Do Land Rights Help Prevent Fires?

The best way to protect the Amazon forest from destruction from fire, mining, illegal-logging, and gold-mining is to expand the official land rights of indigenous peoples, and ensure that they have the tools, skills, information and relationships with state agencies to protect their lands, forests and cultures. 

Science has shown that indigenous peoples are effective forest stewards, able to manage forests to contain greater carbon density than state-managed forests and to foster higher levels of biodiversity. Data also shows that forests managed by indigenous peoples have both a lower presence of fire and lower fire temperatures that prevent needless forest loss.

Fires surround the Xingu in Brazil, but are rare in the indigenous territory itself.

Rainforest Foundation Us’s Response to the Amazon Fires

Building on 30 years of steady, dedicated work with local, regional, and national Indigenous organizations in the Amazon, Rainforest Foundation US (RFUS) is investing and providing direct technical and administrative support to indigenous partner organizations to advocate and defend their rights.

In Guyana, Brazil and Peru, to actively prevent and respond to the threat of fires, we are supporting partners to:

Fires in the Amazon Over the Past Seven Days

This map shows fire detections from the NASA VIIRS satellites, it is updated daily and show fires for the last seven days. Indigenous territories (in green) are from RAISG.

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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.