Forest fires are raging in Xingu National Park in the Amazon rainforest, according to a pioneering cattle rancher-turned-conservationist in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso.
John Cain Carter, founder of Aliana da Terra, one of the most innovative organization working in the Amazon, told mongabay.com that fires in the Amazon are presently among the worst he has seen in a decade in Brazil.
“We are in the middle of our burning season and it is one of the worst I have seen,” he said. “Three weeks ago I tried to land at the Kamayura Indian village and upon flying 300 feet over the village, was not able to land because I could not see it do to the smoke. A huge area of the Xingu National Park was on fire, truly sickening as it is a sign of things to come.”
Carter says that his own ranch was also damaged by fires set by illegal land clearers.
Photos by John Cain Carter. “Our own ranch burned, thanks to land grabbers who started a forest fire in my neighbor’s 65,000-acre forest reserve,” he told mongabay.com. “That fire jumped into our property and wiped us out, both financially and emotionally. Our forest is toast, literally.”
Carter says that high commodity prices are driving fire setting by land speculators who seek both to clear forest and to generate buying opportunities for cattle ranches.
“Commodity prices are up, land prices followed, and subsequently the crooks started to invade the remaining large tracts of forest still found in the Xingu,” he explained. “They intentionally set fires to wipe out the region’s forage base (grasses/pasture) to create great cattle buying opportunities.”
“In our case, the fires were started by organized land grabbers but many people in the region feel that other subsequent fires were set by crooked cattle buyers,” Carter continued. “One elderly gentleman burned to death. He was found with his arms wrapped around a small tree which he was trying to climb to get away from the flames.”
The Amazon burning season typically runs from July to October and is marked by choking smoke that can lead to airport closures and hospitalizations for respiratory problems. Fires are especially bad in dry years. In 2005 and 2006 the Amazon experienced the worst drought on record as thousands of square kilometers of land burned for months on end, releasing more than 100 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
2007 is shaping up to be a similar year with meteorologists forecasting conditions akin to those seen in 2005: warming in the tropical North Atlantic (the same conditions that influence hurricane formation in the Caribbean and East Coast of the United States). Another year of drought is of great concern to researchers studying the Amazon ecosystem. Field studies by the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Center suggest that Amazon forest ecosystems may not withstand more than two consecutive years of drought without starting to break down. Severe drought weakens forest trees and dries leaf litter leaving forests susceptible to land-clearing fires, which, in turn, produce smoke that hinders the formation of rain clouds. Logging and deforestation only worsen the effects, which can lead to a feedback cycle that further dries the forest.
Photos by John Cain Carter. While only 18 percent of the Brazilian Amazon has been destroyed to date, simulations by scientists from Woods Hole and other institutions suggest that 40 percent of the rainforest could be lost by 2050. Climate change, which may increase temperatures in the basin by as much as five degrees Celsius (eight degrees F), could exacerbate the loss.
“The threat of a “permanent El Nio is therefore to be taken very seriously,” said Dr. Philip M. Fearnside of the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA) in an interview with mongabay.com last year. “Again, it depends on how seriously society takes the problem to be. If fossil-fuel combustion and deforestation are reduced to reflect the importance of the problem, then the worst could be avoided. If this does not happen, the danger of a ‘runaway greenhouse’ escaping from human control becomes much greater. Disintegration of the Amazon forest, with release of the carbon stocks in the biomass and soil, would be a significant factor in pushing us into a runaway greenhouse.”
“It’s not out of the question to think that half of the basin will be either cleared or severely impoverished just 20 years from now,” added Dr. Daniel Nepstad, head of the Woods Hole Research Center’s Amazon program. “The nightmare scenario is one where we have a 2005-like year that extended for a couple years, coupled with a high deforestation where we get huge areas of burning, which would produce smoke that would further reduce rainfall, worsening the cycle. A situation like this is very possible. While some climate modelers point to the end of the century for such a scenario, our own field evidence coupled with aggregated modeling suggests there could be such a dieback within two decades.”
Interview with John Cain Carter, founder of Brazilian NGO Aliana da Terra Cattle ranchers and soy farmers could save the Amazon — 06/06/2007 John Cain Carter, a Texas rancher who moved to the the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso 11 years ago and founded what is perhaps the most innovative organization working in the Amazon, Aliana da Terra, believes the only way to save the Amazon is through the market. Carter says that by giving producers incentives to reduce their impact on the forest, the market can succeed where conservation efforts have failed. What is most remarkable about Aliana’s system is that it has the potential to be applied to any commodity anywhere in the world. That means palm oil in Borneo could be certified just as easily as sugar cane in Brazil or sheep in New Zealand. By addressing the supply chain, tracing agricultural products back to the specific fields where they were produced, the system offers perhaps the best market-based solution to combating deforestation. Combining these approaches with large-scale land conservation and scientific research offers what may be the best hope for saving the Amazon.