Fires in the Amazon

Why have the Amazon fires happened, and what might be the consequences?
03 September 2019

Interview with 

Rachel Carmenta, Cambridge University




Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, often dubbed “the lungs of the planet” and home to an impressive variety of plants and animals, is on fire. The scale of the damage isn’t known yet. So why has this happened, and what might be the consequences? Izzie Clarke spoke with Rachel Carmenta, from the University of Cambridge Conservation Institute...

Rachel - In its natural state the rainforests wouldn't burn. They're very moist places, they're steeped in shade, there are ferns and there's a lot of water in the system. But what's happened over time is that rainforests have become more fragmented and they've been logged and so that means that certain trees, the large valuable timber trees, have been taken out. When that happens, big openings in the forest appear which means that sunlight can penetrate through, which means that all of that tinder and all of the vegetation can be dried out and then it becomes fuel for fire. And then you combine that with many more actors in the region using fire, combined with the climatic factors of drought and changing temperatures. It has created a situation in which once fire resistant rainforests are now fire prone.

Izzie - You mentioned that people sometimes use fire in the Amazon. So why would they use fire in that case and how is this year different from that?

Rachel - For many many years and generations, traditional small scale landholders including indigenous communities, they use fire. It's absolutely essential because that's how they clear the land to grow their crops. But they do so with different management practices to contain a fire. And so this is why for all the generations in which fire has been used we haven't always seen these uncontrolled fires in forest landscapes. But today we have begun to see, and not just this year but since really the 1990s, fires and mega fire events recurring throughout these landscapes because of other types of land uses which have come to the region, such as soy and cattle production and other different types of agriculture and including industrial scale agriculture, which has created a very different situation where fires are now prevalent.

Izzie - What is the impact of these fires at the moment?

Rachel - A lot of the discourse that talks about the problem of fire focuses on the environmental burden. So for example the climate and carbon related emissions, or the biodiversity impacts which are relevant to the global community and of course really do matter. But what is missing perhaps is thinking about the local and the lived experience of suffering those wildfires Those households that are feeding their own families, growing their own food, hunting when they need to, fishing when they need to, and when fires come through they lose their agricultural plots, they lose the ability to hunt because the animals have made themselves scarce or been caught in the blaze, but also because hunting is more difficult when the forest is burnt because of all of the crackle and the crunch underfoot. So you can no longer have silent passage through those forests.

Izzie - Is there any way that forests can recover from damage like this?

Rachel - More so when the fires have passed through the first time, I think the cycle gets harder to break the more that the fires recur because the forest gets more and more impacted from those events to the extent where some scientists talk about tipping points in the Amazon, which are a real concern for the global climate, for biodiversity.

Izzie - Are we seeing more uncontrolled fires around the world?

Rachel - Yes, we are, and that's predicted to increase into the future because of extending fire weather seasons. The Indonesian peat lands for example have suffered catastrophic fires, 2015 was declared a humanitarian crisis, Bolivia is also having problems with uncontrolled fires and it's predicted to worsen if something doesn't change.


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