Wildfires raged throughout parts of the Amazon forest this week, making headlines worldwide and pushing the world’s largest forest ever closer to an ecological “tipping point” at which the forest could irretrievably degrade into drylands.
Fires in the Amazon are not new, and some experts pointed to evidence indicating that this season’s fires are not necessarily worse than in recent years. Nevertheless, they have grabbed the world’s attention like never before, meriting mention ahead of the upcoming G-7 summit and a month before the UN Climate Summit in New York.
The news has also raised questions:
- Where exactly are these fires occurring?
- Is there any hope for restoring the forest in places where it has burned?
- Aren’t some of these fires in protected areas?
- Is there any hope of stopping the fires — and saving the Amazon from disaster?
Conservation International experts have some answers.
1. Here’s where the fires are — and what that tells us
This time-lapse shows satellite images of large fires in South America over the past few months; the Amazon ecosystem is outlined in light green, and heavily forest areas are in dark green. Near the end of the time-lapse — which represents the past few weeks — the map surges with red.
© Esri / NASA / Kellee Koenig Conservation International
The red dots represent what are called “thermal anomalies” — in most cases, fires, says Kellee Koenig, a cartographer at Conservation International. “It means a hot place where it is hotter than it should be,” Koenig said. “So when it is in the forest, it is probably a fire.”
Some conclusions can be drawn from the patterns in the map, Koenig says — chiefly that there is little doubt that most of the fires are set by humans.
“As you get closer to some of the more recent fires, what you can also strongly see are these linear patterns, and that to me is really significant,” she said. “Fires can occur due to lightning, but those kinds of fires are not common in the rainforest, so you can be pretty confident that some of these things were manmade. When I see linear patterns in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon, those are along roads.”
As the map above makes clear — and in spite of the headlines — the fires are definitely not unique to Brazil, Koenig notes.
“Brazil rightfully has been getting a lot of attention for political reasons, but you can see there are fires elsewhere, such as Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela. It has been interesting to see that Brazil’s neighboring countries, which are clearly also having significant fire issues, are galvanizing the resources to do something about it to the extent that they are able.”
That said, this fire season was predicted to be worse than in the past, partly due to climate change, according to Karyn Tabor, senior director of ecological monitoring at Conservation International.
“Fires in the Amazon are always worse during an El Niño year, which is what it seems is emerging in 2019,” she said.
Such fires, she says, are never a good thing.
“The Amazon is not a fire ecology system,” Tabor said. “In other words, these forests are not meant to burn, unlike forests in the U.S. Fires in the Amazon cause the forest to become more susceptible to burning again in the future. Also, burning enables access for more deforestation deeper into the forest.”
Fires also reveal where ecosystems are degraded and need added protection before they are fully deforested, Tabor says. “Fires pose a huge threat to forest restoration sites in particular, so monitoring and preventing fire spread near these sites is critical to protect conservation efforts.”
2. Speaking of restoration: Even if the fires stopped, could the Amazon forest be fully restored?
The short answer: Yes.
“The areas in the Amazon that are currently being burned have a high restoration potential because the Amazonian ecosystem is incredibly resilient, and also because so many areas that are degraded are in close proximity to intact forest,” said Nikola Alexandre, who oversees Conservation International’s global restoration efforts. “That is important because the easiest, most cost-effective and fastest restoration method out there is natural regeneration” — essentially, simply allowing the forest to grow back.
The longer answer: It would take time — and effective efforts to leave the forest alone.
“Naturally regenerating tropical forests take about 20 years for forest cover to come back,” Alexandre said. “It takes another 50 years for 80 percent of species that were lost to come back, and then to get to some sort of ecosystem that resembles what was there before it was destroyed, that can take up to a century or a century and half.”
READ MORE: What on Earth is ‘reforestation’?
There are ways to hasten the process, he says.
A technique called “applied nucleation” calls for planting relatively small islands of a number of fast-growing tree species that attract birds, insects and seed dispersers — potentially cutting restoration times in half, sometimes as much as 75 percent, Alexandre says. “Many Amazonian indigenous communities are incredibly adept at this and should lead these strategic, ecologically informed planting efforts.”
That raises the question: What hope is there for restoring forests in areas of the Brazilian Amazon that have already been converted to agriculture?
“If you operate under the assumption that you recognize that these farmers are not going to go anywhere and that the value of some land is just too high to convert back to natural forest, you would explore ‘silvopastoral’ systems — getting trees into these pasture lands,” Alexandre said.
In the case of cattle ranching, Alexandre cites examples of economically productive systems with up to 20 percent tree cover — beneficial because it brings shade, increases grass growth and retention, and provides some habitat for birds and insects.
Some nonprofit groups in Colombia are pursuing such solutions, Alexandre says, having in some cases increased incomes while protecting key ecological systems. “Working with farmers to find compromises that balance economic production and ecological health are the production systems of the future that we need to invest in under a changing climate.”
Alexandre was quick to note two key potential obstacles to forest restoration in the burned areas.
The first was land tenure: We don’t always know whose land is being burned, he says.
"Ideally, once the current fires are put out, as much of the forested areas should be restored back to forest; pasture land already under production would then be transitioned to silvopastoralism to the extent possible,” Alexandre urged.
READ MORE: What on Earth is ‘land tenure’?
The second obstacle: The dreaded “tipping point.”
“As soon as about 20 percent of the Amazon is deforested, we’re over that tipping point. Once that happens, no amount of restoration can help.”
3. Isn’t much of the Amazon forest within ‘protected areas’? Why would those be burning?
Unfortunately, some protected areas — places set aside to conserve nature, such as national parks — are more “protected” than others.
The past few years have seen a wave of rollbacks in legal protections for protected areas, including Brazil, research from Conservation International has shown.
A recent study found that governments in 73 countries have removed more than 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) from protected areas and downgraded protections for an additional 1.65 million square kilometers (637,000 square miles). More than three-quarters of rollbacks of protections since 1892 have occurred since the year 2000.
Brazil is no stranger to such “PADDD” events — short for protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement — says Rachel Golden Kroner, a global expert on PADDD at Conservation International.
“We found that 4 percent of protected areas in Brazil were affected by PADDD events over the last 46 years,” she told Conservation News earlier this year. “While this is technically lower than in some other Amazonian countries, it’s a hotspot to watch closely.”
Deforestation in a given area can go hand in hand with the loss of legal protections in that area, she said.
“We’ve looked at conditions that could lead to PADDD events and found that deforestation was a significant risk factor: Protected areas in Brazil that were already more deforested were at greater risk for experiencing legal rollbacks of their protections,” she said.
“With this in mind, more forest loss due to fires could lead to more PADDD events.”
Despite clear correlations, more research is needed, she says, to match PADDD events against the new fires.
“We can track fires throughout the region in real time,” she said. “Tracking legal changes takes longer.”
4. What on Earth do we do about any of this?
We can still save the Amazon. But it’s going to take action on a large scale, and at multiple levels.
According to media reports, countries were in discussions about applying international pressure on the Brazilian government to take action. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted about the fires, stating that protection of the Amazon needs to be a primary discussion at the upcoming G7 summit.
Other countries in the Amazon basin are already taking action to protect the forests, from establishing more protected areas to helping implement a market for carbon credits that helps keep forests standing.
While it’s OK to worry, it’s critical to not give up: “Pessimists never get anything done,” Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan told C-SPAN earlier this week.
Read more about how you can help stop climate change.
Bruno Vander Velde is the senior communications director for Conservation International. Kiley Price is a staff writer for Conservation International.
Cover image: Amapá State Forest (© Adriano Gambarini)