Fires in Amazonia have made headlines around the world, but there’s more to the story. Analysis by Conservation International is revealing where the fires are and why that matters.
* Thermal anomalies detected by NASA VIIRS sensors with greater than or equal to 30% confidence in the most recent 48 hours (red) and 7 days (yellow). Click here for land governance data sources.
There’s more to the story
Fires in Amazonia occur year-round but peak in late austral winter
“Fire season” in Amazonia begins in July when farmers in the region typically clear their land with fire to grow crops. Fire is also the main tool for clearing tropical forests. During the dry season, agricultural fires can burn out of control, resulting in deforestation and forest degradation.
Some years are worse than others
Cyclical dry periods are tied to El Niño events, however, a climate-change-induced drying trend is causing more frequent and severe droughts and fires. That’s why our Amazon Restoration Alliance is restoring Brazil’s lands to increase nature’s resilience to climate change. One strategy to reduce the use of fire by farmers is establishing agroforestry systems.
Why fire on the forest edge matters
Fires occurring on the forest-agricultural frontier1 dry out the forest edge, making these edges more susceptible to fires and droughts. This degradation causes a dieback of the tropical forest, which is replaced by grasses and shrubs, permanently changing tropical forests to grasses and shrub vegetation that are extremely susceptible to more fires.
Fire density2 varies by land tenure
By understanding the status of and changes to land use governance in Amazonia, we can better determine where the fires are occurring. CI is leading efforts to monitor legal changes that scale back protected areas (protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement, or PADDD), and actively tracking environmental rollbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. This research enables us to suggest proactive and evidence-based policy responses.
In Brazil, deforestation outside protected and indigenous lands in the Legal Amazon3 has increased in recent years
In public lands, most of the deforestation is happening in rural settlements and public properties. Some of the planet’s most effective stewards of nature, indigenous peoples frequently lack consistent and timely access to the data, technologies and resources necessary to monitor new threats to nature and their livelihoods. Conservation International’s Earth Observations for Indigenous-led Land Management (EO4IM) provides technical capacity-building in geospatial tools that can help communities monitor the status and condition of their lands and to make informed decisions about conservation and land management.
A tipping point
Protected areas and indigenous lands can help us save this vital ecosystem. Up to 15% of the Amazon has already been lost, and researchers suggest that if this reaches 25% to 30%, the entire biome will be permanently altered, with global ramifications for our climate.
Where there’s smoke, there’s Firecast
Developed in part by Conservation International, Firecast is an online platform that uses satellite observations to track ecosystem disturbances such as fires, fire risk conditions, deforestation and delivers this time-sensitive information to decision-makers through email alerts, maps and reports.
- The Amazon forest-agriculture frontier represents an approximately 1 km buffer that straddles the boundary of large contiguous forests and agricultural lands. This is a critical zone where tropical forests are dying back due to degradation and drying-out. It is also an area that contains an incredibly high concentration of fires.
- Due to uncertainties of the exact locations of the satellite-detected fires, we use a 1-km buffer to confidently separate fires inside protected areas and IP areas from fires that that occur within 50 meters of the boundary edge, either inside or outside. We refer to this edge zone as the “Protected Area and IPLC accuracy buffer.” Read an explanation of fire detection accuracies.
- Brazil's Legal Amazon (or Amazônia Legal) is the largest socio-geographic division in Brazil, containing all nine states in the Amazon basin. It is an official designation covering 59% of Brazil but only 12.34% of the Brazilian population lives there. Although called Amazônia Legal, the region overlaps three different biomes: all of Brazil's Amazon biome, 37% of the Cerrado biome and 40% of the Pantanal biome.