The Bright Side of Amazon Fire, Courtesy Data

Is the Amazon forest fire an international crisis? Source: Pixabay

There has been a global outcry over the fires in the Amazon forest. Our social media, and even professional media, are flooded with details about the horrific fire in Amazon. French President Emmanuel Macron called the fires “an international crisis”.

But how big really are these fires? And is there any hope for the future of the Amazon rainforests, and for humanity in general?

Fire is Unprecedented, but only in Brazil: the Amazon Forest is Safe and Sound

Before we get on to the magnitude of fire, we must understand the geography of Amazon. The Amazon rainforests are not exclusive to Brazil, it is spread across eight more countries: Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.

All the news about historic fires and the unprecedented amount of burn area exclusively refer to the part of Amazon which is in Brazil (also known as Brazilian Amazon). However, most media houses fail to mention this. As a result, people across the globe have come to perceive that the entire Amazon is in peril. It is not. 

Fires in Brazilian part of the Amazon has been higher than all recorded years. However, the overall fire in Amazon has been “well below average levels”. This fact has been unanimously acknowledged in the scientific community, because the data for the same is readily available and is unmistakably clear. 

The following are the cumulative monthly fire data for Overall Amazon and the Brazilian Amazon. One can see the difference for the year 2019: highest for Brazilian Amazon and near average levels for overall Amazon. It is also evident that there were much bigger fires between 2003 and 2011.

Images: (a) Cumulative Monthly Fire Count for Entire Amazon, (b) Cumulative Monthly Fire Count for Brazilian Amazon. 2019 represented in green in both graphs. Source: https://www.globalfiredata.org/forecast.html#totals

Real Reason behind the Fires in Amazon

This year’s historic fires have strong links to deforestation and agriculture. Farmers set fire to cleared forest areas regularly to rejuvenate the soil and this is known to be a significant cause of fires in the Amazon forest. 

“The dry season creates favourable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident,” said a researcher from INPE space agency. “The driest years in Brazil will have the most fires set by farmers. It is normal for agriculture in a country where 50 million people living in poverty are trying to survive,” said a former NASA scientist.

The New York Times confirmed the same. “Scientists studying satellite image data from the fires in the Amazon rainforest said that most of the fires are burning on agricultural land where the forest had already been cleared…by farmers to prepare the land for next year’s planting, a common agricultural practice.”

Moreover, there are no dangers to global oxygen levels from the Amazon fire. “Almost all the oxygen the Amazon produces during the day remains there and is reabsorbed by the forest at night. In other words, the Amazon rainforest is a closed system that uses all its own oxygen and carbon dioxide,” said professors from Yale.

So, the fires are a common occurrence associated with farmers in the Amazon area and the role of climate, if any, is minimal and secondary. Fires, like that of this year’s, can be easily avoided if proper agricultural management practices are implemented in these regions, provided they do not hamper the farmers efforts to replenish the soil for cultivation. 

The surprising news is that the Amazon forest is safe, and control of burnt area can be achieved easily through sound agricultural practices.  Availability of extensive data on the Brazilian Amazon has helped in analysing the crisis and come to reasonable conclusions. India could learn from this example. On the home front, we
need to revamp the data on our forests in order to manage disasters like these, account accurately for losses, and understand their actual impact on ecology and livelihoods. Indian farming practices, especially the burning of crop residue in this context, also need to be understood and tackled. For example, if crop burning must happen, it should take place before the dry season and before the surrounding landscapes turn fire-prone. Crop burning should also be avoided during high winds and hottest time of the day. 

In short, there is little need to panic over disappearing forests. India instead should equip itself with appropriate policies for agricultural land practices, and robust forest fire management solutions; the Amazon example should serve as an opportunity – and a reminder – to build both.

(inputs by Vaibhavi Pingale, freelance researcher of Economics based in Pune.)

Vijay Jayaraj

Vijay Jayaraj is a consultant with IRADe New Delhi and specializes in Environmental issues, especially climate change and its impact on ecosystem. He has a Masters from University of East Anglia, UK and has worked as a Researcher at University of British Columbia, Canada.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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