Marianna B. Ferreira-Aulu & Gabriela Zuquim
Intense forest fires in Amazonia made the headlines in August 2019. For those who study the region, this environmental crisis came as no surprise. The fires are the result of a long-term obliviousness of national governments towards the environment, intensified by the weakening of Brazilian environmental agencies (IBAMA and ICMBio) and the relaxation of surveillance actions and fines for environmental crimes.
The forest fire dynamics
The blackening of the skies in Sao Paulo in August 2019 was the result of massive slash-and-burn cutting of the Amazon rainforest. The smoke from thousands of man-made fires caught the attention of the world when it reached the mega city. When images of the intense smoke went viral, the news broke everywhere. However, slash-and-burn fires like these happen every dry season in the region and have always been a concern. This year however, the damage is alarming to everyone.
The deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is monitored by two programs of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE): PRODES, which produces an annual report, and DETER, which is a daily deforestation and fire alert system, that is not as precise, but generates almost real time information, aiming to help local officers to act quickly in combating criminal deforestation and fires. It also serves as an indication of deforestation trends.
In July 2019 DETER detected a 278% increase in deforestation trend in comparison with the same period last year.[i] So this year the fires destroyed a much larger area and hinted that the situation may further escalate in the next few years.
According to Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of the project Mapbiomas, there is more fire and smoke coming even sooner. Based on data from satellite images of INPE, significant deforestation continued during July and August and if the trend continues, the cleared areas will be burned soon after, probably during October.[ii] Azevedo explains the slash-and-burn agriculture technique: first, the large trees are cut down and cleared away, then tractors with chains clear the lower vegetation, which is then left to sundry for a few months. Once the cut vegetation is dry, fires are lit to clear the forest. [iii]
The monitoring of the rainforest is particularly important because all fires in Amazonia are anthropogenic. Because there is abundant water stored in the Amazonian rainforest ecosystem[iv], there are no natural forest fires in the rainforest. Thus, many of the Amazonian species have not evolved to tolerate fire events. In some ecosystems such as savannahs, cycles of fires can be natural and species have developed adaptations to survive under these conditions.
The fires are not only dangerous for the ecosystem, but many of them are also illegal. Investigations by the Brazilian federal police show that many of the August fires in Amazonia were lit by criminal organizations, and environmental crimes were only “the tip of the iceberg”, as several other crimes were also committed, such as slave-work, corruption, violence and land-grabbing.[v]
Fire the messenger
For the first time in recent Brazilian history, large-scale degradation of the Amazon is being backed by an official government. When INPE published the deforestation trends data for July 2019, there was an immediate reaction from President Jair Bolsonaro to discredit the data. The president accused INPE to be working for the interest of some NGO, and suggested that the data is therefore biased. Minister of Environment Ricardo Salles also suggested that the methodology used by INPE is incorrect. Such allegations forced INPE’s director Ricardo Galvão to explain the science behind the numbers, and publicly criticize the President and his current government’s policies, which caused him to be ousted.[vi]
Firing the director of a research institute for publishing scientific data that displeases the current government is deeply concerning; freedom of speech is intrinsic for democracy. The monitoring system used by INPE in Amazonia is scientifically recognized around the world, and the methodology is internationally reviewed. According to Dr. Douglas Morton, Chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory in NASA, although INPE’s data is inconvenient to the current government, the data is unquestionable, and Dr. Galvão’s dismissal is alarming[vii].
This particular dismissal is not the only policy to “kill the messenger” currently in action in Brazil. Since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, the State has not only cut funding for science and education, but also publicly discredited researchers. In April, Bolsonaro announced an annual budget cut of 30% for all federal universities[viii]. Thus far, 11,811 study grants for masters and doctoral students have been cut since January, and no new grants will be awarded for the remainder of the year through Capes, the federal study grant system, culminating to the cancellation of several research projects due to the lack of funding[ix].
Scenarios for the future of Amazonia
In 2017, Ferreira-Aulu (the 1st author of this text) published – in her Master’s thesis – alternative future scenarios for Volta Grande do Xingu[x], a region on the East of the Brazilian Amazonia, where the Belo Monte Dam is being built. The paper was published in the midst of a political turmoil in Brazil, soon after former president Dilma Rousseff was impeached and before Bolsonaro announced his candidature to president. Four scenarios for 2020 were presented:
- Continuation was a scenario not much different from the then-present in 2017, where Brazil would continue being governed democratically, but governmental policies would be driven by economic growth heedless of socio-environmental impacts.
- The Black Swan scenario played with the idea of an unlikely future where the Belo Monte Dam is stopped and the Xingu River revitalised. Brazil’s administration’s main goals would be to fight corruption at all levels, working towards a more transparent and just society. Following this line of thought, major infrastructure projects implicated in the money-laundering scheme would be revised, and their security suspension annulled, Belo Monte included.
- The Perfect Storm scenario envisioned a disastrous situation rising from a set of failed circumstances. A future where many potential hazards come to be. The scenario depicted an authoritarian government with no concern for environmental issues. A future where state officials omit themselves from regular inspections, where censorship towards the civil society -mainly NGOs and the academic community- would be applied, and where armed forces violently terminate protests. In this scenario, investigations on corruption and money laundering would be shut down due to lack of funding to the federal police. The perfect Storm described a future where deforestation rises at an unprecedented rate, illegal logging instigate acts of violence and several plant species completely disappear. Soil desertification intensifies and the Amazon biome gets closer to reaching its tipping point with an unlikely return.
- And last, as a ccounterpoint the Perfect Storm, the Lucidity scenario, pictured a preferred future where decision-making would be evidence-based, and facts would prevail over political power. In this utopian-like scenario, the Brazilian administration would be strongly engaged to sustainable development and democratic participation. There would be a large investment in science and education, and empowered environmental organs. A new agenda of sustainability would be produced democratically, including proposals from specialists and participation of the civil society. Even the most preferred scenario is not perfect. In the lucidity scenario, Brazil suffers from a decline in economic growth. The scenario played with the idea that Brazil would be ran by a progressive government, and that conservative parties would constantly attack the administration arguing that the private sector is being weakened by public bureaucratic processes. The administration’s counterargument in this scenario would be that sustainable development has a long-term approach, and that electorates should take into consideration the long-term benefits that the current administration is providing not only for this trimester, but for a lifetime, and for future generations.
It is 2019 and it seems Brazilian conservation policy is moving towards the Perfect Storm. Although the thesis published in 2017 did not discuss forest fires per se, it did discuss the future of the Amazonian forest. It was and is clear that the future of the forest is strongly determined by the environmental agenda of the government. Today, the country is ruled by a president that disregards scientific facts and tries to silence scientists. The Minister of Environment is a climate change denier, who also claims that Brazil is not far from “zero illegal deforestation”[xi].
Is the disregard of environmental issues due to being oblivious, or deceptive politics? One thing is for sure. The Lucidity scenario seems even more farfetched today than it did in 2017.
Marianna B. Ferreira-Aulu
Finland Futures Research Centre, University of Turku
Ecology and Evolution Biology, Biodiversity Unit of the University of Turku
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Article photo: Fire in Tapajós region, Pará State, Brazil. Photo: Hanna Tuomisto
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[i] G1 (2019) Areas with deforestation alerts in Amazonia has a 278% increase compared to previous year. 7 August 2019
[ii] Azevedo, Tasso (2019) The worst fire is yet to come. 30 August 2019
[iii] Azevedo, Tasso, The worst fire is yet to come. 30 August 2019
[iv] Artaxo, Paulo in Matheus Pimentel (2019) Forest fires in Amazonia are not natural. 8 September 2019 https://www.nexojornal.com.br/entrevista/2019/09/08/%E2%80%98Nenhum-inc%C3%AAndio-florestal-na-Amaz%C3%B4nia-%C3%A9-natural%E2%80%99
[v] Girardi, Giovana (2019) Investigations reveal organized crime and millionaire gains behind deforestation. O Estado de S.Paulo. 31 August 2019 https://sustentabilidade.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,investigacoes-revelam-quadrilhas-e-ganho-milionario-por-tras-do-desmate,70002990544
[vi] G1 (2019) Exoneration of INPE’s director is officially published. 7 August 2019
[viii] Saldaña, Paulo (2019) Ministry of Education extend budged cut to all federal universities. 30 April 2019, Jornal Folha de São Paulo. https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/educacao/2019/04/mec-estende-corte-de-30-de-verbas-a-todas-universidades-federais.shtml
[ix] Pimental, Metheus (2019) Short- and Long-term efects of the study grants for science. 9 September 2019, Nexo Jornal https://www.nexojornal.com.br/entrevista/2019/09/09/Os-efeitos-de-curto-e-longo-prazo-do-corte-de-bolsas-na-ci%C3%AAncia
[xi] Phillips, Dom. (2019) Brazil environment minister to meet US climate denier group before UN summit. 13 September 2019. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/13/brazil-environment-minister-climate-denier-group-ricardo-salles