BRAZIL – The dry season in the Brazilian Amazon state of Roraima has been more incendiary than usual this year, due to a combination of interrelated threats. Land theft, illegal deforestation, climate change and a record number of wildfires are combining to seriously damage the region’s forests. These impacts are being worsened by Brazil’s financial crisis which has drained state coffers, and by federal environmental budget reductions made by the Jair Bolsonaro government.
From January to April, wildfire spread easier and farther throughout Northern Brazil, according to the Queimadas Program, managed by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Statistics through May show that the country saw an overall increase in wildfires, with 17,913 registered blazes. Most of these occurred in the Amazon, with 11,804 cases registered across Brazil’s nine Amazonian states. Only 2016 saw more harm, when 13,663 wildfires burned in the basin, home to the biggest remaining rainforest on the planet.
Over the same period this year, Roraima registered 4,600 registered fires, which made it the most affected in the country (Roraima saw just 1,970 fires during all of last year). 2019’s statistics become even more impressive when one considers that the previous record for a Brazilian state was set by Mato Grosso, which suffered 4,927 forest fires in all of 2016. Mato Grosso is located on the expanding edge of the so-called Amazon Deforestation Arc. The state also contains part of another endangered biome, the Cerrado savanna, where agribusiness plantations are rapidly replacing native vegetation, which helps explain its high number of wildfires.
To fully understand the factors behind this year’s increase in fires, it’s necessary to look at historic causes: most dry season wildfires in Brazil are not natural, but are lit by farmers and industrial agribusiness to renew land for planting (with those fires then often raging out of control and burning forests). Or they are intentionally and illegally set by land thieves, speculators who burn off rainforest in order to make land more valuable for resale to cattle ranchers and crop growers.
“Here [in the Amazon], fires are always linked to deforestation,” explains Joaquim Parimé, the regional superintendent of Ibama in Roraima, Brazil’s federal environmental protection agency.
Parks on fire
Wildfires in Roraima over recent months, and the lack of federal resources available to deal with them, are exemplified by recent events in Viruá National Park.
This federal conservation unit, created in 1998, covers 241,948 hectares (934 square miles), and protects an unusual Amazon rainforest ecosystem known as a Neotropical white-sand forest, which occurs regionally as “habitat islands” beside rivers. Viruá conserves a unique Amazonian marshland that protects the Branco and Baruana rivers, along with extraordinary biodiversity. It is home to jaguars and more than 500 species of birds, many of them endangered.
Unfortunately for the park, it is also located in Caracaraí, the municipality most impacted by forest fires in Brazil during early 2019; the interior of the park too suffered a number of blazes between January and April.
“There are indications that the recent fires in Viruá National Park originated [on private properties] outside the unit,” explains Christian Berlinck, Superintendent of Firefighting and Prevention with the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), the federal agency that manages Brazil’s federal parks and other conservation units, such as wildlife refuges.
In March, Caracaraí — a municipality larger than Switzerland — saw 800 fires. Farther north in February, in Amajari (a municipality within 93 miles of Boa Vista the state capital) an emergency was declared, with new fires registered daily. Contributing to the emergency: Amajari faces historical problems of land tenure and land grabbing, including allegations that involve local politicians.
“Much of the land in the Brazilian Amazon is in the public domain,” explains Philip Fearnside at the Amazon National Research Institute. Typically that public “land enters the private domain by first being illegally invaded either by squatters or by grileiros (land grabbers), and eventually the government recognizes the claims and grants title.”
In Roraima, a clear link has been established by authorities between forest fires, land grabbing and the illegal timber extraction market, focused on species such as the coveted maçaranduba tree.
“Land grabbing in the Amazon has different [stages]: first, the land grabbers tear down the timber species to make a profit. Then, what’s left of the original vegetation is deforested, replaced by cattle pasture, which [then] serves as a proof that the land is ‘productive,’ making it easier for land grabbers to obtain title,” explains an Imazon document; Imazon is a Brazilian research institute that monitors Amazon deforestation.
The grileiros often also set fire to a forest in order to intimidate and expel anyone who may already be living there, including indigenous and traditional peoples, who as squatters may be attempting to establish legitimate settlements as part of Brazil’s longstanding land reform program. As a result, the grileiros are in near constant conflict with these communities across Brazil, but especially in the Amazon, where rural settlements are often far from the help of law enforcement.