Brazilian Government Claim That Amazon Fires This Summer Were 'Normal' Disproved by Scientists

The number of active fires raging in the Brazilian Amazon this year peaked in August—and scientists have now linked these blazes to the highest levels of deforestation since 2008.

The fires received global attention in the summer, prompting an international outcry, however the Brazilian government claimed at the time that the situation in August was "normal" and "below the historical average."

For a study published in the journal Global Change Biology, a team of scientists led by Jos Barlow from Lancaster University in the U.K. examined these claims by assessing long-term active fire and deforestation trends.

The team has shown that the number of active fires in August 2019 was nearly three times higher than the same month in 2018—and the highest since 2010. Furthermore, the researchers say there is "strong evidence" that this increase was linked to deforestation.

"The marked upturn in both active fire counts and deforestation in 2019 therefore refutes suggestions by the Brazilian Government that August 2019 was a normal fire month in the Amazon," Barlow said in a statement.

According to the scientists there are three main types of fire in the Amazon, all of which are caused my human activities.

"They are all started by human actions: to burn felled trees as part of the deforestation process, to maintain agricultural land, or as malevolent arson in land disputes," Barlow told Newsweek.

The first type, deforestation fires, are used after primary forest has been cleared and the vegetation has dried in order to prepare the area for agriculture.

"Second, there are fires in areas that have been previously cleared," the authors wrote in the study. "For example, cattle ranchers use fire to rid pastures of weeds, and smallholders, indigenous and traditional peoples use fire in farm‐fallow systems. Not all fires in previously cleared lands are intentional—some escape beyond intended limits."

"Third, fires can invade standing forests, either for the first time when flames are mostly restricted to the understorey, or as repeated events, resulting in more intense fires," they said.

Of the different types, the researchers say the fires in summer this year were associated with deforestation, according to an analysis of data collected by the Brazilian government's DETER-b service.

This analysis showed that deforestation in July was almost four times the average seen in the same month over the previous three years. This almost certainly contributed to the situation in August because once the forest is felled it is subsequently burned, in the vast majority of cases.

Amazon rainforest fires
Smokes rises from forest fires in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, in the Amazon basin, on August 27, 2019. JOAO LAET/AFP via Getty Images

"In 2019, it was clear that the increase in fires was linked to an increase in deforestation. And we estimate that deforestation rose significantly, and will likely surpass 10,000 kilometers squared for 2019," Barlow said, referring to the period between August 2018 and July 2019. This is the highest annual loss since 2008, according to the study.

These findings are consistent with media footage and images that show large-scale fires in deforested areas. The researchers add that the exceptional nature of 2019 is highlighted by unusually high fire counts in some protected areas, such as Jamanxim National Forest, where the number of blazes increased by 355 percent from 2018 to 2019.

"Our paper clearly shows that without tackling deforestation, we will continue to see the largest rainforest in the world being turned to ashes. We must curb deforestation," Erika Berenguer, another author of the study from Lancaster University and the University of Oxford, said in a statement.

"Brazil has for the past decade been an environmental leader, showing to the world that it can successfully reduce deforestation. It is both economically and environmentally unwise to revert this trend," she said.

According to the researchers, preventing forest fires will require a number of measures. Finding alternatives to fire-based approaches for the clearance of agricultural land is an important step, as is taking action to curb illegal logging operations.

The Amazon rainforest plays a key role in the global climate, storing vast amounts of carbon dioxide—thus mitigating the impact of global warming. However, this ability is declining as a result of widespread deforestation.