Hi, welcome to Tracking Brazil.
A lot has happened in the last week. The Amazon forest is in the spotlight, but as we all know, it’s not for the right reasons. With thousands of fires across the region, I’ve designed this newsletter to outline how we got here.
The first thing that we must stress is that these are not wildfires. What we’re seeing is the last stage of deforestation. Trees are cut and later burned, fertilizing the soil for pasture. Experts call this “land-conversion”.
In fact, there are two different words in Portuguese for fires: the first one is “incêndios”, which refers to uncontrolled fires, intentional or not. The second one is “queimadas”, which are intentional fires targeting specific areas.
“Queimadas” are not rare. They happen every year and usually peak around September, at the end of the dry-season. As you know, this year the number of fires has increased by more than 80% compared to last year. However, there are a couple of things that make this years’ queimadas a bit different.
IT’S NOT THE HIGH TEMPERATURES
Last Friday, Bolsonaro made an official statement about the Amazon fires. He announced that he would deploy the military to fight the fires and that the government would fight illegal activities. He tried to describe the situation as something normal and a consequence of high temperatures.
Surprisingly, Bolsonaro was right when he said that the number of fires we’re seeing this year is “not outside the average for the last 15 years”. There are several reasons for this.
First, the historical series includes years of extreme droughts, such as 2005 and 2010. Second, until 2012 deforestation rates were huge in Brazil – and so was the number of fires.
Between 2004 and 2012 Brazil made a huge effort to reduce deforestation. Deforestation rates plunged almost 85% between those years. They went from losing 27,500 km2 of forest in 2004, to “only” 4,600 km2 in 2012.
However, Bolsonaro’s association of the fires with this year’s “heat” is more problematic. Researchers at IPAM compared the number of fires to rainfall data over the last 3 years.
Above are 2 interconnected graphs. On the left, we have the number of fires (Focos de calor) on the vertical axis, versus deforested area during 2019 on the horizontal axis (Desmatamento em 2019). On the right, number of fires vs consecutive days without rain (Dias sem chuva). Each point represents a municipality.
Just by looking at these graphs, we can’t be 100% sure that deforestation is the cause of the fires (though it correlates nicely!). However, what we can say is that lack of rain doesn’t seem to have much to do with the extent of the fires. The researchers also saw that, on average, 2016-2018 were drier years than 2019. And yet there were less fires on those years.
A DANGEROUS PATH
Environmentalists believe that this surge in fires has a lot to do with the government’s rhetoric over environmental issues. There are many examples of this, but I’ll leave here just two.
Last April, during a raid against illegal logging, Ibama, the agency responsible for fighting environmental crimes, burned vehicles that were being used by the criminals. This procedure is legal. Despite this, Bolsonaro recorded and published a video where he heavily criticized Ibama and said he would punish the person responsible.
Last July, newspaper Folha de São Paulo reported that Ricardo Salles, now Minister of the Environment, visited a group of loggers suspected of illegally extracting wood from indigenous land in the state of Rondônia. The loggers were responsible for having set on fire a tank trunk loaded with helicopter fuel that was being used by Ibama in an operation against them. As a result, the operation had to be cancelled. This is what he told the loggers:
“The good working people of this country are here represented by you”.
There are countless other examples of Bolsonaro and other members of his government complaining about environmental laws, protected areas, indigenous land demarcations, etc. This is a government that sees the Amazon as a land full of minerals to be mined, wood the be logged and rivers to be dammed. And the people that are setting the forest on fire know this.