Conservation International Reports on Elevated 2020 Fire Risk in Amazonian Region

July 7, 2020


(Photo: Flavio Forner)

High Temperatures, Deforestation and COVID-19 Compound Threats to Tropical Forests

Arlington, Va. (July 7, 2020) – Citing forecasting models indicating drier than average conditions in the western Amazon, coupled with COVID-19 and decreased government enforcement, Conservation International’s Senior Director of Ecological Monitoring Karyn Tabor released the following statement on the 2020 Amazonian fire season:

“Early 2020 has seen a perfect storm of factors that is likely to lead to another intense fire season across the Amazon. Predicting the fire season in the Amazon is not straightforward; fire in the Amazon is influenced by ecological, climatic, social, cultural, and economic factors. Conservation International is examining all facets of Amazonian fires, from sea surface temperatures that influence rainfall in South America, to commodity-driven deforestation, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are seeing warmer than average Atlantic sea surface temperatures just north of the equator which usually indicate a drier than average fire season in the Western Amazon. Traditionally, public focus tends to be on the Brazilian Amazon, which holds 60% of the Amazon rainforest, however it is equally important to monitor fire risk throughout the remaining 40% of the forest in other Amazon countries and ecosystems.

“This year, due to drier conditions predicted by NASA and used by Firecast, two of the most at-risk areas are in Peru and Bolivia (Santa Cruz and Beni). Drier conditions do not mean there will be more fires in number but indicate that there will be more area burned due to fire size and the increased risk of uncontrolled spread. This burning has significant ecological, economic and health consequences. We’re also closely watching the Brazilian Amazon states of Amazonas and Maranhão, which face a higher than average risk this season.

“On top of climate factors, field reports show less government oversight and enforcement of forest laws due to COVID-19 restrictions. There has been increased deforestation as people are moving toward rural areas to clear land for income and address economic hardship as well as from opportunistic actors taking advantage of reduced enforcement. Additionally, some governments have used widespread focus on the pandemic to quietly roll back environmental protections designed to prevent deforestation which in turn fuels the capacity for future fires to take hold. Thus, we can reasonably predict that the 2020 fire season could be devastating in some areas.

“In many regions it is expected that fires will impact Indigenous peoples who are already struggling to battle the health impacts of COVID-19. Increased smoke will exacerbate respiratory issues caused by the virus, and forest destruction will affect intact forests, farming land, livestock and other resources these communities rely on to survive.

“There is no doubt that climate change and deforestation are intensifying fire seasons in the Amazon and elsewhere in ways that negatively impact livelihoods and the environment. As we approach the time for annual agricultural burning, the monitoring and tracking risk of uncontrolled fire spread remains imperative for the safety of all people in the region. Everyone suffers from these fires, from the people living and working in urban economic centers compromised by smoke pollution to rural indigenous communities who are already overburdened with fighting a pandemic while continuing to protect nature for the planet.”

Conservation International cited the following updates and evidence-based predictions from Amazonian countries facing fires this season, with reports expected to continue weekly:

  • In Bolivia’s Santa Cruz region, heat between January–April has reached a four-year high and is expected to fuel fires this season. Fire susceptibility is prominent in the same regions where fires burned in 2019, leaving behind cleared land and highly combustible material. Compounding these factors is a demand for agricultural land.
  • Early reports from Brazil anticipate slightly fewer fires but more deforestation. From January–May this year there was a 24% reduction in detected early fire outbreaks compared with 2019. However, there was a 20% increase in accumulated deforestation over the same period, likely due to less government oversight. As COVID-19 continues to spread through the interior of the Amazon, high mortality rates and respiratory diseases compounded by fire smoke are anticipated.
  • Colombia is reporting increases in heat and deforestation during the early months of 2020. From January–April forest loss (75,301 hectares) was nearly half the total deforestation seen in 2018. Satellite data has revealed significantly more locations with early-season high temperatures when compared to 2019. Historically, these high-temperature areas reveal themselves to be fires in 95% of cases. Fires will likely impact the northern, northwestern and western Amazonian regions.
  • In Ecuador, according to meteorological estimates, a less dry season is expected than last year. However, regardless of the climatic conditions, most fires are related to agricultural practices and mainly affect the Andean zone. For this reason, public institutions and local governments have focused their actions with local communities on prevention and training on integrated fire management. From April to June 2020, satellites have detected a higher number of heat alerts than those detected last year. To date, some of these have proven to be fires and others were revealed to be related to volcanic activity.
  • In Peru, our field office reports that the season is expected to be on par with 2019 with the possibility of a slight reprieve given a lighter dry season, although it is too early to tell for sure. They caution that COVID-19 has driven people to rural areas which in turn could lead to increased land-clearing for crops like coffee, cocoa and others, therefore increasing the chance land will burn readily.
  • Suriname’s field office reports low occurrence of intense fires in recent history. They are, however, anecdotally monitoring the impacts of COVID-19 on the region. Due to imported food shortages there may be more slash-and-burn activity to clear land for agriculture this year. There has also been burning of coastal swamp and mangrove cover reported in March.
  • Guyana’s dry season in early 2020 was not very destructive, and it is too early to adequately predict what 2020–2021 will bring. If the next dry season is long, the fires could be severe as there may be a buildup in combustible organic material; should the season see intermittent rain, the fires will likely not be as severe.

In addition to on-the-ground country experts, Conservation International can connect you with the following for interviews now or over the coming months:

  • Karyn Tabor, Senior Director, Ecological Monitoring. Tabor can discuss Firecast, 2020 fire season predictions and real-time analysis of satellite observations and climate projections as they influence Amazonian fires.
  • Lisa Famolare, Vice President, Amazonia and Americas Field Division. Famolare can discuss the wide-reaching impacts of fires across South America and the Amazon. She can also assist with connecting you with on-the-ground resources.
  • Dr. Rachel Golden-Kroner, Social Scientist and Environmental Governance Expert. Golden-Kroner can discuss environmental rollbacks, their connection to COVID-19 and the cyclical process of deforestation and dissolution of protected areas.
  • Juan Carlos Ledezma, Regional Technical Specialist for the Americas. Ledezma can discuss the history and impacts of previous Amazonian fire seasons, including 2019.

About Firecast

Firecast is a fully automated analysis and alert system that delivers a range of near real-time (NRT) monitoring products tailored to a user's specific needs. These include simple text-based emails containing the coordinates of active fires, or risk of fire within a user's specified area of interest (i.e. protected areas, areas of high biodiversity importance, different vegetation and land cover types, and administrative units). The data can be used as an alert system for local communities to assist with real-time response to active fires.

About Conservation International

Conservation International works to protect the critical benefits that nature provides to people. Through science, partnerships and fieldwork, Conservation International is driving innovation and investments in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, supporting protections for critical habitats, and fostering economic development that is grounded in the conservation of nature. We work in 30 countries around the world, empowering societies at all levels to create a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable planet. Follow Conservation International's work on Conservation NewsFacebook, TwitterInstagram and YouTube.