Brazil Is Burning Its Forests

The number of forest fires in 2010 – the highest in three years – exposes dramatically the lack of infrastructure to prevent and combat forest fires. In 2010 the country had piled up about 72,000 fire outbreaks. In 2009 there were 26,200 and in 2008, 44,700. Despite the severity, the subject was and is ignored by the Brazilian government.

Wild, forest and bush fires in California, Russia, Canada, Spain and many other places are  days long front page news. Few is written about the forest fires which are constantly raging in Brazil. And, wherever in the world, the fires have all one thing in common. The forest fires are almost always started by developers, whether it is the real estate guy in the west or the greedy farmer in Brazil, the result is the same. Thousands of square kilometres are burned down each year simply for profit for the few.

According to data from INPE (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais = National Institute for Space Research) almost all regions in the country were affected by fires. The forest and bush fires occur where agriculturists are used to burn items for various purposes, p.E. the renewal of grazing areas, the removal of accumulated material in the preparation of sugar cane plantations, the clearing of rain forest for pasture, the clearing of bush of the Cerrado for planting soya etc. This is usually an efficient, fast and relatively inexpensive alternative compared to other techniques that can be used for the same purpose.

Parque da Chapada Imperial in Brazlândia, satellite city of Brasilia (DF). Savannah areas are the ones suffering most from bush fires. 06/09/2010. Photo: Celso Junior / AE

Sometimes bush or forest fires spark spontaneously by drought and sunlight, however the main causes of the widely spread forest fires in the country are man-made and started in preparing the soil for agriculture.

In the interior of the federal state São Paulo, with the absence of rainfall, there are constant fires near roads. Sorocaba, 16/09/2010. Photo: Epitácio Pessoa / AE

We distinguish two types of ‘fires’:
Archaic burning: Burning is an ancient agro-pastoral or forestal practice that uses fire in a controlled manner to enable agriculture or renew pastures. Burning should be done under certain environmental conditions that allow the fire to remain restricted to the area that will be used for agriculture or livestock.

Forest Fire or Wild Fire: Is the fire that is out of control and consumes any form of vegetation. The fire can either be man-made (intentional or negligent), or by natural causes such as drought or sunlight.
Large numbers of fires in tropical forests are caused by the untidy action of man who, by wishing to deforest, uses fire in a disorganised way, creating favourable conditions for the occurrence of large forest fires.

Fire spreads in the area near the Granja do Torto, the official presidential residence in Brasilia. 15/09/2010. Photo: Pablo Valadares / AE

Without doubt contributing to this worsening picture are various meteorological phenomena. But to environmentalists, the gist of the matter is the use of fire in agriculture, which, despite being an archaic technology, is still widely used and when getting out of control, causes large uncontrollable fires.

The Raposo Tavares highway in the region of Sorocaba. 16/09/2010. Photo: Epitácio Pessoa / AE

“The Brazilian farmers use fire as a plough or tractor and ash as fertilizer,” says Paulo Adario of Greenpeace. For him, it is essential to invest in schooling of the agriculturist and in technical assistance. Roberto Smeraldi of Amigos da Terra – Amazônia Brasileira (Friends of the Earth – Brazilian Amazon), reinforces the statement: “We have a vicious circle of intentionally sparked forest fires due to the delay in agricultural and livestock productivity programs. The challenge lies in changing this primitive practice.”

Sorocaba. 16/09/2010. Photo: Epitácio Pessoa / AE

Parque da Chapada Imperial in Brazlândia, satellite city of Brasilia (DF). 06/09/2010. Photo: Celso Junior / AE

Besides the environmental issue, the uncontrollable forest fires prejudice the farmers. The Confederação Nacional da Agricultura e Pecuária (CNA = National Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock) has no data, but admits that the issue is perturbing. “Preventive actions have failed. This year we need a more comprehensive action plan,” says Assuero Doca Veronez, chairman of the Environment Commission of the CNA.

Vegetation is consumed by fire in the area near the Granja do Torto, the official residence of the President in Brasilia. 15/09/2010. Photo: Pablo Valadares / AE

Parque da Chapada Imperial in Brazlândia, satellite city of Brasilia (DF). 06/09/2010. Photo: Celso Junior / AE

Sorocaba. 16/09/2010. Photo: Pessoa / AE

Assuero Doca Veronez explains that, until then, the regional agricultural federations and the rural unions have been active in guiding producers to prevent fire. “You need to join forces with government agencies to devise a more effective plan,” he says.

Fire fighters combat fire in the Parque da Chapada Imperial in Brazlândia, satellite city of Brasilia (DF). 06/09/2010. Photo: Celso Junior / AE

Area near the Granja do Torto, the official residence of the President in Brasilia. 15/09/2010. Photo: Wilson Pedrosa / AE

He agrees that we must modernize agricultural practices, especially for small producers in the North and Northeast. “The technology to prevent the use of fire exists, the question is disseminating it. And that requires public policy.”

End of last year, Environment Minister, Izabella Teixeira, announced a plan to protect the Cerrado. The package provides for the employment, over the next five years, of 4,500 fire fighters for fire prevention and fire fighting. The minister promised BRL 350 million (USD 210 million) for the execution of the action plan, the money to be divided between various ministries.

Parque da Chapada Imperial in Brazlândia, satellite city of Brasilia (DF). 06/09/2010. Photo: Celso Junior / AE

Parque da Chapada Imperial in Brazlândia, satellite city of Brasilia (DF). 06/09/2010. Photo: Celso Junior / AE

Also at the end of last year the Programa Nacional de Redução e Substituição do Fogo nas Áreas Rurais e Florestais (Pronafogo = National Program for Reduction and Substitution of Fire in Rural Areas and Forests) was created. For the program coordinator, Vânius de Amorim, the burning issue is transversal. “It covers education, agrarian reform, indigenous lands, farming, agribusiness and population growth,” he says.

Fire in the National Park of Brasilia. 20/09/2010. Photo: Pablo Valadares / AE

Fire in the National Park of Brasilia, seen from the Águas Claras district in Taguatinga. 19/09/2010. Photo: Ed Ferreira / AE

According to him, the program intends to create centres in the federal states that integrate the three spheres of government to improve monitoring and prevention. There already are centres in Roraima, Mato Grosso and Tocantins. Although even being part of the program, Mato Grosso is the state with the largest number of fire outbreaks in the country (21,600). However “without the program, it would have been much worse,” he says.

And so it goes:

Smoldering Pastureland Cleared For Cattle From The Amazon Rain Forest. Rondonia State, Brazil. Photo by Michael Nichols/National Geographic/Getty Images

Note: I took some of the text and all the photos from a beautiful photo-blog. The blog “Olhar sobre o Mundo” (Looking at the World) is a place of photo reports, essays and visual chronicles. Pure photojournalism. The blog is edited by the photo team of the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo and the pictures are sourced from photojournalists from the Grupo Estado and international agencies. The publishing model is partly inspired by the Big Picture of The Boston Globe, but, of course, the flavouring has many ingredients genuinely Brazilian.
The text, I partly used for my article about the forest fires, was written by Balazina Afra and Andrea Vialli, both from O Estado de S. Paulo.
The blog “Olhar sobre o Mundo” is certainly worth a frequent visit.