IFFN Recent Publications: Flames in the Rain Forest – Origins, Impacts and Alternatives to Amazonian Fires (IFFN No. 22 – April 2000)


Flames in the Rain Forest:
Origins, Impacts and Alternatives to Amazonian Fires

(IFFN No. 22 – April 2000, p. 108)

This book is the first comprehensive analysis of fire and its new, disturbing role in the Amazon. The book builds on a 1996 study commissioned by the World Bank that examined the causes of increasing forest clearing and fires at five sites along the Amazon region’s arc of deforestation. Written by a team of scientists based at the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) and the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (IPAM), and with the collaboration of researchers from diverse institutions and disciplines, this book examines in detail the origins and impacts of Amazonian fires. Practiced by indigenous peoples during millennia fire is an ancient component of the regional landscape. Until recently, its impacts were generally localized. Today, however, fire affects all major ecosystems in the Amazon and releases more than 4% of the total carbon entering the atmosphere worldwide each year.

One of the book’s most disturbing findings involves the impacts of so-called forest surface fires such as those that struck Roraima. At first glance, these impacts appear to be small. Surface fires are usually confined to the forest floor, where they consume organic material and underbrush. Yet even such low-intensity fires damage the bark of rainforest trees, which slowly die during the following year. This slow death builds up substantial amounts of fuel on the forest floor, and the gradual open fires during the following year’s dry season. These findings suggest that the Roraima fires could be far worse in 1999.

In addition to analyzing the origins and impacts of Amazonian fires, the book explores alternatives that could enhance fire prevention and control. Based on a synthesis of available data on rainfall, soil and land-use practices, the authors present the first predictive model of forest fires in the Amazon. The model, which was used in preparing a World Bank emergency project for fire prevention and control in the region, provided a sobering outlook for the latter half of 1998: about 200,000 km2 of Amazon forest were under extreme threat of burning. The data used to construct this model were admittedly deficient. For example, the Brazilian Amazon contains 60 weather stations, compared to over 1,000 in the continental United States. With improved data collection, modeling could provide a powerful tool for fire prevention and control in the Amazon.

According to the authors, the key challenge confronting policy alternatives is that many of the benefits of fire prevention and control such as reduced emissions of greenhouse gases, protection of biodiversity, decreased flooding and erosion, and improved air quality-accrue to society as a whole, while the costs are borne entirely by individual landholders. Through enforcement of sensible policies and judicious use of economic incentives, a more balanced distribution of costs and benefits can be achieved. Finally, the authors conclude that Amazonian fires can no longer be treated only during “emergency” years, nor can they be effectively controlled by brigades of publicly financed fire fighters. Instead, fires must now be viewed as an integral part of the Amazonian landscape, and strategies for combating them must begin with the region’s local communities – where creative solutions are already being tested.

Nepstad, D.C., A. Moreira, and A..A.Alencar.1999. Flames in the Rain Forest: Origins, Impacts and Alternatives to Amazonian Fires. The Pilot Program to Conserve the Brazilian Rain Forest, Brazilia, Brazil. 190p.

IFFN No. 22

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