Brazil’s Worst Month Ever for Forest Fires Blamed on Human Activity

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By Sam Cowie, The Guardian

Brazil has seen more forest fires in September than in any single month since records began, and authorities have warned that 2017 could surpass the worst year on record if action is not taken soon.

Experts say that the blazes are almost exclusively due to human activity, and they attribute the uptick to the expansion of agriculture and a reduction of oversight and surveillance. Lower than average rainfall in this year’s dry season is also an exacerbating factor.

A volunteer works to put out a forest fire in the northern area of Brasilia’s National Park, in Brasilia, Brazil, August 30, 2017.
Credit: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The National Institute of Space Research (INPE) has detected 106,000 fires destroying natural vegetation so far this month — the highest number in a single month since records began in 1998, said Alberto Setzer, coordinator of INPE’s fire monitoring satellite program.

“It is fundamental to understand that these are not natural fires. They are manmade,” Setzer said.

Fires are commonly used during Brazil ’s dry period to deforest land and clear it for raising cattle or other agricultural or extraction purposes.

The total number of blazes since 1 January was 196,000, and Seltzer expressed concern that — with the dry season continuing in Brazil’s Amazon — 2017 could surpass the worst year on record, 2004, when there were 270,000 fires.

According to INPE, deforestation has risen continuously since 2012, when a new forest code that gave amnesty to deforesters was introduced. The last available data for 2016 showed a 29 percent rise since the previous year.

Burning is illegal and carries heavy fines, but fire is often used to clear land for pasture or crops and hunting or results from land conflicts.

The problem was compounded, Setzer said, by a lack of oversight and manpower to contain the blazes.

“When there is a reduction in checks and surveillance, we see an increase in the number of fires,” he said.

View of the devastation caused by a forest fire in front of Brasilia’s National Park, in Brasilia, Brazil, September 19, 2017.
Credit: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The government of president Michel Temer has been heavily criticised by environmentalists for making deep cuts to the country’s environmental budget, which have affected the ability of Brazil’s environmental police to perform inspections and raids.

In September, after a month-long battle, firefighters gave up on a fire in Tocantins state park, believed to have been lit by local fishermen and carried by strong winds during an intense dry period. An area three times the size of São Paulo was destroyed, according to local media.

“The Temer government’s policies signal for those in the countryside that the doors are open for more deforestation and more fires,” said Cristiane Mazzetti, a Greenpeace Brazil campaigner, listing a series of measures by the Temer government including reducing protected Amazon forest areas and giving amnesty to land grabbers.

Critics say Temer is acting at the behest of powerful ranching and mining interests inside congress. Recently, the government was highly criticized for opening up a vast Amazon reserve for international mining, a decree that was later revoked .

The states most affected by fires this year have been in the Amazon, increasingly targeted by ranchers and miners, with the Amazon biome accounting for 49 percent of the burnings.

The Amazonian state of Pará was the worst affected, with a 229 percent increase in fires from last year. It is home to the two hardest hit municipalities, São Félix de Xingu and Altamira, home of Brazil’s controversial Belo Monte dam  project.

Reprinted with permission from The Guardian .

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