By Marina Forti
The Brazilian Amazon has never been so dry. In the literal, meteorological sense of the term: large swathes of the planet’s largest rainforest are in extreme dry conditions, particularly in the eastern and southern part of the Amazon basin.
This should trigger an alarm, indeed more than one. Immediately, because the driest months of the year are approaching, those in which deforestation intensifies and so are the fires. Many fear a new “season of fire”, like the one that had captured world attention in the summer of 2019 (strange though: in 2020 the fires were no less, but the world did not notice). Longer term, because the interplay between drought and deforestation is now well established, and many fear that the “tipping point” is approaching where much of the Amazon rainforest will be replaced by savannah.
Let’s recap. The first fact is that the pace of deforestation is reaching new records. 1,390 square kilometers of forest disappeared in May, according to the system satellite surveys of the Inpe (the Brazilian Space Research Institute, which has a specific monitoring system for the Amazon region). That’s 67% more than in May 2020, and more than in any other month of May since 2008. The same happened in April.
However, the critical months are yet to come. Deforestation has a seasonal cycle; during the rainy season, between November and February-March, it slows down; in addition, the immense clouds that cover the region make satellite observations more difficult (whatever happened on the ground, the satellites will see it in the following weeks, that is now). In the dry season, when it is easier to move on the ground, the work of the loggers begins again: partly for the precious wood, partly to free up land to cultivate, or transform into pastures, or for new mining research.
What matters therefore is the annual budget. According to the Inpe, last year (from August 2019 to July 2020) just over 11 thousand square kilometers of forest disappeared, the highest level of the previous twelve years, and this year things are promising even worse.
The second fact is that the monitoring centers have already reported the first major fires, in advance of the usual seasonal trend: fires also develop in summer. Most of the major fires are set on purpose on newly cleared land to “open” the land to new activities. It happens along what Brazilians call the “deforestation arch,” a large crescent that surrounds the Amazon from east to west, from the southern borders of the forest region to its center. Deforestation pushes further into the rainforest, and so do fires. Edge areas tend to be warmer and drier than denser ones; where the forest is fragmented by advancing deforestation and fires, the ecosystem becomes more vulnerable and destruction accelerates.
Today several observers are on alert and fear a new season of fires. It will be remembered that in the summer of 2019 the situation got out of control also because loggers, fazenderos and ranchers had perfectly grasped the message of President Jair Bolsonaro, who spoke of “opening” the immense forest to “modern economic exploitation”. Thus proving himself a worthy heir to the military governments that in the 60s and 70s had begun to open roads in the Amazon to send landless peasants to colonize that depopulated territory, and to exploit its natural wealth.
The reverse of the “development” dream is that that land was not empty at all, there were natives who were driven to the margins; after all, even the poor settlers mostly ended up working in the plantations of a few large landowners (today celebrated entrepreneurs of modern “agribusiness”). Also, there was a misunderstanding. The Amazonian ecology depends on its vegetation: much of the land below is poor. Stripped, the territory loses its humus, becomes impoverished, the crops require more and more artificial inputs, the savannah takes over.
And let’s get back to the point: drought. It seems almost impossible, in a rainforest that is humid by nature. Instead, droughts have already occurred in the Brazilian Amazon in 2005 and 2010, and now an international study led by the University of Leeds reports that we are in a similar situation, because the reduction in winter rains reported at that time is comparable to that of the winter just ended. And that the risk of an extreme climate change scenario is much higher than one might think.
The fact is that the water cycle of the Amazon rainforest also depends on its trees: the humidity evaporates and acts as a thermal regulator, and the water vapor falls back in the form of rain. The forest depends on the falling water, and the rains depend on the forest. If the forest disappears, the balance jumps.
The sum of deforestation and fires also releases large quantities of carbon into the atmosphere: thus the crisis in the Amazon aggravates climate change and in turn is aggravated. Many scholars fear that the point of no return is approaching, when the forest releases more carbon dioxide than it can absorb.
So we are on the verge of a new year of drought and a new season of fires, deforestation is increasing, and the Amazon is in danger of turning into a savannah. Will it be enough to set off the alarm?