As Amazon Fires Rage, Brazilian Government Ignores Old Lessons

Aerial view of a large burned area in the city of Candeiras do Jamari in the state of Rondônia. (Image by Victor Moriyama/Greenpeace)


By Ruth DeFries

News about raging fires in the Amazon forest has been spreading … well, like wildfire. But there is nothing “wild” about the Amazon fires. Unlike the American West, fires are not a natural feature of the Amazon. Farmers set them intentionally to clear land to make way for pastures and croplands.

This year, with a Brazilian president who prioritizes development over protection of the Amazon, deforestation fires are at their highest level since 2010.

Satellite data that look down on the Earth from space provide a comprehensive picture. The Brazilian Space Agency has a decades-old, well-established system to use these data to track deforestation and fires. More than 15 years ago, I worked with Brazilian colleagues to develop the ability to identify from satellite data new deforestation, almost in real time. So it is all the more personal and painful to see the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, attack their integrity and put ideology over evidence.

Less covered in the news is the extraordinary success of the Brazilian government, farmers, environmental group, and companies to put in place effective policies to curb deforestation in the mid-2000s. Deforestation rates plummeted, while improved management of pastures and croplands produced more output. The success proved that economic development and forest protection do not have to be at odds.

With the shift in political winds, deforestation and accompanying fires are on an upswing. That is bad news for people hundreds of miles downwind who breathe dangerous smoke from the fires. It is also bad news for everyone concerned about global warming. Tropical forests store vast amounts of carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. That carbon goes up in smoke as forests burn.

The ability to monitor deforestation and fires from satellite is now routine. But as an annual check-up can guide but not ensure good health, data can only guide policies to protect forests. Political will is the main ingredient.

Ruth DeFries is an environmental geographer who uses remotely sensed satellite imagery to explore the environmental effects of agriculture and urbanization on the Earth’s habitability. The DeFries lab is housed within the University’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, whose members work closely with colleagues at Columbia’s Earth Institute. DeFries, who received a MacArthur “genius” award in 2007, is the recipient of many other honors for her scientific research. Read DeFries’ op-ed in The Washington Post.

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