So far this year, MAAP has detected several large areas in the state of Mato Grosso that have been recently deforested, and could be the sites of fires later this year.
“Fire season doesn’t start out of nowhere in August — it started a year ago with deforestation,” said Matt Finer, senior research specialist and the director of MAAP. He says their research suggests this year’s fires will be “as bad if not worse” than last year’s. “We need the intensity of the rage and concern that people had back in August, we need that now to ratchet up the urgency of the situation.”
Finer and his team used a new method combining data from heat-tracking satellites with data monitoring levels of particles in the atmosphere to give a more accurate picture of where forest fires occur. They have developed an app to track the fires in real-time and hope it will be of use to firefighters on the ground to focus resources over such vast areas.
As the Amazon burns, humans are to blame
Natural forest fires in tropical forests such as the Amazon are extremely rare due to high levels of humidity. That means humans are responsible for most of the recent destruction.
“All the fires we have seen in the Amazon have been set [intentionally]. Unlike some other forest systems that are dependent on fires, such as in California, Florida or Australia, the Amazon doesn’t burn naturally,” said Ane Alencar, IPAM’s director of science in a press conference on Wednesday run by Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
The move has had some success, Alencar said, but has not succeeded in combating the root cause — deforestation.
“Around half the deforestation that we have seen so far is happening on public lands, which means that people are going after and grabbing the land and provoking conflicts, which is illegal,” says Alencar. “This can only be fought by strong enforcement and strong signals from the government that illegal deforestation is not allowed.”
Coronavirus is devastating Brazil’s indigenous communities
This year, the risk of respiratory diseases due to air pollution from fires could exacerbate the impact of Covid-19, particularly for indigenous people whose lands may be nearer the fires. Such was the warning from former president of the U.S. Institute of Medicine and dean of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, Dr Harvey Fineberg, at the press briefing.
She also warned that the health risks of the fires are not limited to the Amazon.
“The particulates from the forest fires can travel to other areas,” Castro said at the press conference. “As cities relax social distancing measures in Brazil without adequate surveillance, testing and contact tracing, as we are seeing, an intense fire season could have devastating public health consequences, with the unnecessary loss of many lives and the widening of local inequalities.”
As the eyes of the world remain focused on the pandemic, it remains to be seen whether the plight of the Amazon will receive the same attention that it did last year.
But Alencar says international pressure is key to tackling this problem.
“How international communities can help is to put pressure on the companies that buy products from the agribusinesses [and by] pressing the government to respect this amazing patrimony that we have, which is the forest.”