Burning in the Amazon has to stop

A sharp increase in the number of forest fires has been recorded in the Brazilian Amazon this year. The fires, linked to the burning of land to clear it for crops after deforestation, threaten biodiversity, soil fertility and human health. As a member of Brazil’s Climate, Forests and Agriculture Coalition, Solidaridad outlines why it is essential for the country’s government to focus on addressing the climate crisis, controlling deforestation and promoting sustainable agriculture.

The Amazon from above, photo: NASA Earth Observatory, Joshua Stevens

Forest fires in the Amazon

Outbreaks of forest fires in the Amazon have caused widespread concern during recent weeks, with dark smoke covering cities in southeast Brazil. On Monday 19 August, São Paulo’s afternoon sky became so dark it was as though night had fallen.

According to Brazil’s National Institute of Meteorology (Inmet), this phenomenon was created when a cold front met with smoke particles coming from the forest fires. For several weeks the fires have consumed large areas of rainforests in Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay.

The number of outbreaks registered by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in its fire programme, is already the highest registered from January to August in seven years.

In 2019, the number of fires in the country increased by 82% compared with the same period in 2018. The main cause of this increase is the reduction in the enforcement of environmental crimes, and less effective conservation of forests.

Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s government has been making budget cuts in environmental spending, and it has already signaled, from an expansionist perspective, that the future development of the Amazon lies in deforestation.

Because the Amazon rainforest is so humid, fires occur more frequently when wood left over from logging has dried out and is burnt to make room for pastures or agriculture. According to experts, natural fires would not easily spread in the region.

Today burning is still the main technique used for clearing new areas for crops, and is allowed by law in many Brazilian states. There are landowners and farmers who apply this technique properly, seeking the necessary guidance. Fires could be significantly reduced in tropical landscapes if farmers were trained in fire prevention and burning management techniques. This includes where and when not to burn, how to control burning land, and how to reduce the risk of accidental fires.

In 2019, it’s estimated that more than 90% of deforestation carried out in the Amazon prior to the current fires was the result of illegal activity.

Such activity includes the occupation of undeveloped public land by land grabbers, the opening of clandestine mines in conservation units and indigenous lands, and illegal logging in protected areas, indigenous lands and non-designated public lands.

Land burning, BrazilSmoke from agricultural burning

Fire transforms organic elements into inorganic elements that can provide soil with nutrients. At first this may seem positive for agricultural activity. However, rainfall carries these soil nutrients into nearby rivers, negatively impacting human health, soil fertility and biodiversity.

According to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, the ten municipalities with the highest number of forest fire outbreaks registered in 2019 are those with the highest deforestation rates. This includes the states of Acre, Amazonas, Mato Grosso, Rondônia and Roraima.

A study published in Nature Climate Change in 2018, shows that Brazil could become the fourth largest global economy to be most affected by the rise in CO2 emissions and the effects of climate change. Climate change will mainly affect its agricultural sector, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This creates a vicious circle in which agriculture contributes to the acceleration of climate change and, in turn, climate change contributes to a reduction in agricultural production and productivity, due mainly to changes in temperature and rainfall.

Currently, several proposals submitted to the National Congress seek to weaken the Brazilian Forest Code. This situation generates legal insecurity, hampering law compliance, business development, and the ability of the sector to attract the necessary investment. In addition, this compromises the image of Brazilian agribusiness both at home and abroad. The weakening of the Forest Code, if it occurs, along with the delay in the implementation of economic incentives for producers who protect forests on their properties, will also contribute to an increase in deforestation in the Amazon.

Our position

Solidaridad is an active member of Brazil’s Climate, Forests and Agriculture coalition. Founded in 2016, the coalition is a multi-sectoral movement which seeks to propose actions and influence public policies that lead to the development of a low carbon economy. An economy that creates quality jobs, stimulates innovation and competitiveness and generates, and that distributes wealth throughout society. More than 200 companies, business associations, research centres and civil society organizations have already joined the initiative.

The coalition has already expressed its concern about the escalation of deforestation and illegal activities in the Amazon rainforest, as well as violence in rural areas. It urges the government to use all necessary instruments to immediately cease these practices and restore order in the country.

Brazil cannot go back on the advances made to date. It is necessary to regain control of deforestation.

The period between 2004 and 2012 was marked by a significant drop in deforestation, along with a leap in agricultural productivity. This track record shows that agricultural production can be increased without the need for deforestation.

The coalition is opposed to initiatives proposing changes to the Forest Code, understanding that the best way to sustainably develop Brazilian agribusiness is to enforce legislation approved in 2012 without further delays or changes. This includes:

  • streamlining the validation of the Rural Environmental Registry
  • advancing the regulation and implementation of Environmental Regularization Programmes
  • implementing the Environmental Reserve Quotas
  • regulating Article 41, which deals with economic incentives for protection of native vegetation.

The coalition advocates the structuring of pay-for-results systems and carbon markets aimed at ensuring the environmental integrity of the global climate system, as well as promoting additional emission reduction efforts in countries and jurisdictions. Carbon markets and pay-for-results systems should be seen as a strategic means for mitigation efforts. In this context, they serve as a structural incentive for sustainable ambition-building efforts, which is crucial to the larger objective of the Paris Agreement.

Brazil’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) aims to reduce emissions by 37% by 2025 and 43% by 2030, from 2005 levels. The majority of this reduction will surely have to come from the forestry, land use and agriculture sectors, which today account for 70% of national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In addition, the sectoral goal of eliminating illegal deforestation in the Amazon, which today accounts for more than 90% of total deforestation in the biome, should make the largest contribution to compliance with the Brazilian NDC.

Brazilian AmazonCleared land in Pará, Brazil

However, with the current trend of an increase in deforestation rates, the achievement of national GHG reduction targets is now at great risk. Other important aims are also at stake, such as strengthening Forest Code compliance at federal, state and municipal levels, and the restoration and reforestation of 12 million hectares of forests by 2030 for multiple uses.

As members of the Climate, Forests and Agriculture Coalition, Solidaridad emphasizes that conserving natural areas on rural properties is fundamental for the protection of Brazilian ecosystems, and for the sustainability of agribusiness itself.

Agricultural productivity is highly dependent on ecosystem services provided by native vegetation, such as erosion and soil loss control, water supply, maintenance of pollinators and natural pest controllers, and rainfall regimes, among others. Therefore, increasing deforestation or compromising the recovery of some of these areas poses a huge risk to the sector.

Solidaridad’s commitment to sustainable development in the Amazon, balancing the needs of various actors and sectors, is part of a global effort that has been devoted to developing deforestation-free agriculture alternatives for years.

A way forward

Brazil has a unique opportunity to excel in a low-carbon economy, and as an agri-environmental power. It has the largest rainforest in the world, the highest biodiversity rates and 12% of the world’s freshwater. It also amounts more than 7 billion tons of avoided carbon dioxide emissions, due to the huge national and successful effort to curb deforestation in the last decade, which can now be monetized.

However, for this potential to be realized, government policies need to focus on addressing the climate crisis, controlling deforestation and promoting sustainable agriculture. This would enable the country to both fulfill the Paris Agreement, and contribute towards a healthier climate for the planet, and food security. Also, new arrangements and mechanisms must be sought for the forestry sector to attract a new tide of investments to mitigate emissions in the country.

In summary, our proposals are to:

  • implement the Forest Code quickly and comprehensively
  • increase enforcement against illegal deforestation, illegal logging and clandestine mining in the Amazon
  • ensure the maintenance and strengthening of conservation units and indigenous lands
  • develop incentive mechanisms for producers who preserve the forest on their properties
  • scale initiatives that leverage production models that integrate forest conservation
  • create financial mechanisms to stimulate low carbon agriculture
  • promote technological advances to enable intensification of agriculture and livestock
  • develop the economy for non-timber forest products from the Amazon.

Making good use of land requires strategic planning, considering the property’s characteristics and the economic outlook for infrastructure, agriculture, livestock and forests. Understanding and applying this is essential to changing the current situation.

Today there is no more room for the destruction of native forests to expand production. Several studies have already pointed out that the combination of intensification and restoration of degraded areas would be sufficient to absorb current and future production needs without the need to convert forests into agricultural areas.

Long-term strategies for reducing forest fires should focus on changing property production systems in the region. As Daniel Nepstad from Earth Innovation Institute (one of the coalition organizations) mentions, farmers who produce fire-sensitive crops and manage agroforestry systems with coffee, cocoa, timber, rubber, fruits, tend to invest more in fire prevention and tend to use land burning less. These crops can also generate higher incomes. Large-scale adoption of these systems would need heavy investment in technical assistance, rural extension, market development and commercialization. But these investments are essential to enable Brazil to continue its successful trajectory in reducing deforestation while increasing agricultural production and livestock.

CocoaCocoa pods

This approach has been demonstrated in practice by Solidaridad through the Amazon Inclusive and Sustainable Territories Programme, developed four years ago in Novo Repartimento, Pará. In this programme, farmers are supported in the implementation of a sustainable production system that includes cocoa, livestock and forest. Farms’ degraded pasture areas are recovered productively through cocoa agroforestry systems.

From a consumer point of view, for those increasingly concerned about the impact of their consumption habits, it is possible to maintain a balanced diet with the addition of animal protein from sustainable livestock production. Sustainable livestock breeding promotes socially inclusive and economically viable practices, which includes job and income generation for thousands of small farmers and ranchers, and therefore contributes to the economic and social development of a region.

A market-based carbon pricing system could be a major driver for the country to harness the value of its forests and to generate economic assets that contribute to the country’s sustainable development.

Performance payment contracts between the Federal Government and countries such as Norway and Germany – both recently suspended because of changes in the structure of the Amazon Fund – and more recently under the Green Climate Fund, are only a demonstration of appreciation of the carbon credit market.

Germany and the United Kingdom have recently entered into a similar performance payout agreement with the states of Mato Grosso and Acre. These agreements depend on Brazil’s continued success in reducing deforestation, which is threatened if budget cuts, and the weakening of agencies working to implement and enforce environmental legislation, continue.

Without support for emissions reduction activities in the forestry sector, compliance with the NDC will be more difficult, more expensive, and will take longer. In addition, without access to major investments to reduce emissions on a large scale, Brazil will become unable to promote activities linked to a standing forest economy. This includes sustainable forest management, the allocation of untitled public areas, low-carbon agriculture, reforestation, forest restoration and the restoration of degraded areas, among others.

Learn more about Solidaridad’s work in South America