Record year for forest fires in Brazil driven by expansion of agriculture and weakened oversight


Nearly 26,000 fire alerts were issued in the Brazilian state of Pará during a one week period in December. Photo: IBAMA

Brazil experienced record increases in forest fires last year, with over 275,000 fire alerts. The rise has been attributed to the expansion of agriculture and weakened regulatory bodies.

In just one week in December, nearly 26,000 fire alerts were issued in the Brazilian state of Pará, in the Amazon biome. Historic data produced by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) shows that 2017 was the year with the highest number of fires in the state since records began in 1998.

INPE has associated the continual rise in illegal deforestation in Brazil over the past five years to the new forest code approved in 2012, which introduced amnesty to criminal deforesters.

Environmental organisations have denounced the drastic cuts to the budgets of environmental and indigenous enforcement agencies under the current administration of President Michel Temer as one of the main factors behind the agencies’ shrinking ability to prevent fires.

September was the worst month in 2017, registering the highest number of forest fires ever recorded in a single month, with more than 110,000 fires destroying natural vegetation in several Brazilian biomes

That month, the Guardian reported that the main causes of these record-breaking trends were “the uptick to the expansion of agriculture and a reduction of oversight and surveillance”.

Half of the fires in September occurred in the Amazon. 2017 was the second worst year on record for the biome.

The second most affected biome in 2017 was the Cerrado, with around 41,000 fires. The Cerrado has seen significant increases in pasture and cropland in recent years.

Several of these fires took place within protected areas and indigenous reserves. The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that the Kayapó Indigenous Territory – in Pará – lost 24,000 hectares (ha) of forest between October and December. 

According to the organisation: "[T]he recent deforestation is likely due to fires in areas previously degraded by logging and other extractive activities."

Still in Pará, only 25 kilometres from the Kayapó territory, the Xikrin do Rio Cateté Indigenous Territory lost an estimated 10,000ha of forest in the same period. WRI has also linked this deforestation to fires.

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