Brazil Is On Fire


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Source: Extinction Rebellion

I’m a Brazilian biologist and I actually cannot believe what I’m seeing…Brazil is on fire! We are losing biodiversity, killing and displacing wild animals and producing smoke, a lot of smoke. Our forests are adding carbon to the atmosphere instead of absorbing it. And, year after year, the situation seems to get worse, and the burning season extends for a longer period.

About 30 years ago, we assumed that our water potential would last forever and today we are paying the bill for our lack of planning and our arrogance, experiencing a water crisis that has everything to do with deforestation, as forests regulate the water cycle. If it is any consolation, it seems that the country suffers from a double personality: while forests are being wildly burned on the one hand, there are reforestation projects with encouraging results on the other.

Extractivism and Colonialism in Brazil

The history of deforestation in Brazil began in 1500, when the Portuguese invaded the country and started colonization. The gateway was the coast, which is more than 7000 km long, bathed by the Atlantic Ocean. 1502 was the start of the great exploitation of pau-brasil, which is a tree found in the Atlantic Forest that can reach up to 30 meters in height and a meter and a half in log diameter. From this tree, a reddish tincture is obtained, similar to a product found in East Asia at the Age of Discovery. The explorers signed lease contracts, committed to the devastation of areas and the construction of facilities to support extraction.

Another objective of the Portuguese was to find precious metals, mainly gold, which was only found around 1693 in the most central regions of Brazil, as they invaded the land. It took them more than 100 years to deforest and manage to penetrate the dense Atlantic Forest to finally find the gold in the states of Mato Grosso (which means thick bush) and Goiás. In 1532, our agricultural history began, when sugarcane was brought here, and replaced parts of our forests. Since then, Brazil has been continuously deforested for agriculture, livestock, logging and mining.

What about the indigenous people? They cannot be forgotten as they are known as the keepers of the forest, living in harmony with nature. Just for an introduction, as this is an extensive subject that must be dealt with separately, suffice it to say that there’s no solution to the climate crisis without Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Land.

Since 1500, as the country was invaded, their history has been marked by brutality, slavery, violence, disease and genocide. In short, as the “civilization” grew, replacing the forests, the indigenous, which in the beginning were 100% of the population (11 million), now make up only 0.4% (approximately 900,000 people). On XR’s blog you can read a very interesting interview with Jimmy Piaguaje, a young indigenous Siekopai, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, by Beth Pitts.

LUNGS OF THE EARTH

This image shows the different and varied biomes (different types of dominant vegetation) that we have here in Brazil (the Atlantic Ocean is on the right).

In addition to the Amazon Rainforest, which is known worldwide, Brazil has other biomes. One of them, Pantanal, which translates as swamp, is just 3% of our territory but… in 2020, 26% of it was burned. How can the water be on fire?

The Pantanal is so deeply affected by the fires that the animals that have not died or been seriously injured are finding it difficult to get food. There are NGOs, such as Fundação Ecotrópica, bringing food to the animals and transporting alligators to places with more water to try to save them. People who work at these NGOs report sad situations, such as wild monkeys approaching humans with outstretched hands, asking for food.

The Amazon Rainforest, once called “Lungs of the Earth”, is also being deeply threatened by wildfires as it was never before. This huge forest is about half the size of Europe! The vegetation is very dense and the trees are very tall, retaining a large amount of moisture within the forest. It is a challenging place for survivalists, as they can’t find dry matter to use to light and maintain the small fires they need to keep animals away. As it is usually so wet, the vegetation is not fire-adapted. Just for comparison, the Cerrado vegetation is fire adapted (the trees have thick bark, with the appearance of cork, which provides thermal insulation and gives them protection from high temperatures). Actually, there are studies saying that, with the deforestation that exposes and thus dries the forest, followed by wildfires, parts of the Amazon started to emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb!

The Amazon Rainforest is so important, the trees are so old… Imagine the time needed to develop such biodiversity. In 2019, researchers found a new highest tree hidden in the forest, a Dinizia excelsa, 88 meters tall. Every giant tree is capable of absorbing 300 to 500 times more carbon than the smaller ones. Imagine the medicinal plants, the exotic fruits still to be discovered if they’re not burned before we find them!

DEFORESTATION MEANS AN INCREASE IN CO₂

Planet Earth has cycles. In elementary school one learns about the carbon cycle. In a summarized view, CO₂ is released into the environment mainly by human activities and it is then absorbed by the plants through photosynthesis, forming plant matter. In 1970, the amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere was about 320 ppm; in 2021, it was approximately 410 ppm.

For a deeply scientific explanation of the carbon cycle and to get informed about other effects of climate change, please read ‘Emergency on Planet Earth‘, written by Dr. Emily Grossman of XR Scientists.

In 2021, IPCC – The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, became famous for proving that climate change is undoubtedly related to human activities. Quoting the IPCC report “Every ton of CO₂ emissions contributes to global warming”.

Recently, a new technology to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere, carbon capture and storage (CCS), has been tested, but the results are so far disappointing and it seems the technology is acting more as a distraction to sidestep the real problem, which is that we need to stop burning fossil fuels. So, we are building high-cost CCS that lack functionality while destroying forests that have been our allies absorbing carbon for centuries.

DOLLARS FROM EXPORTATION

The relationship between the agricultural sector and fires is evident. One of the ways in which this happens is through deforestation, followed by burning, to free up the land, whether for agricultural practice or for cattle raising. Forest fires can also occur when plantations are burned to clear land for the next harvest, and then spiral out of control, spreading to neighboring forested areas.

There is also the illegal logging and, precisely because it is illegal, it is done hidden in deeper areas of the forest, leaving scars and exposing areas to the external climate (drier air and higher temperatures). The increase in average temperatures caused by climate change, which was highlighted by the IPCC report, is also one of the causes for the worsening of fires, as the increase in evaporation dries everything, making the ignition and the spread of fires easier.

Theoretically, the practice of burning to clear the land for the next harvest is regulated by the government, and can only be done with authorization, taking into account the season, plantation size and prevailing climatic factors at the time. However, as there is very little inspection and as it is difficult to prove the origin of the fire after it has already spread, this practice continues to be used irresponsibly, despite the environmental crimes law, which punishes those who cause forest fires with 2 to 4 years in prison plus a fine.

The federal government says it is taking action, inspecting more, sending fire brigades and increasing the integration of fire-fighting agencies. However, when you look at the document with the proposed measures, the first thing you see is that the plan for the 2021/2022 target is to reduce burning and illegal deforestation to historical average levels. If more than 94% of deforestation is illegal, should not the goal be to eliminate this crime and arrest those responsible?

According to Humans Rights Watch, since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, the government has weakened Brazil’s ability to meet its commitments to end illegal deforestation and to reduce deforestation in general. The civilian environmental agencies were dismantled, resulting in a brutal reduction in the number of people responsible for inspection, with consequent mitigation of law enforcement. Furthermore, they allege that the government has been working to ease restrictions on use in protected areas, where illegal deforestation and fires often occur. This resulted in an increase in impunity in relation to environmental laws.

And, to make matters worse, the agro-sector is well known to be profit-oriented, with several companies listed on the stock exchange. It takes advantage of all the gaps left by the government, which only has eyes for short term economic issues, based on the fact that the next presidential election will take place in 2022. If the government looked to the future (not just to the next election) and took the environment into account, rather than ignoring it and turning their eyes from the climate emergency, deforestation would surely end.

To talk about numbers, in 2020 there were 222,798 fire outbreaks in Brazil (in 2013 there were 128.145) and just in September 26, 2021, there were 1725 new outbreaks (according to the fire monitoring website of INPE – National Institute for Space Research).

Recently, two reports from the Globo Rural Program (news about agribusiness, agriculture, livestock, environment and weather forecast) caught my attention:

  1. In September 19, 2021, a farmer said that the Cerrado is a very favorable region for winter wheat, as the main problem for the crop, which is water, can be controlled there, as diseases appear more frequently when there is excess water. This year, the crop only caught one rain and, with irrigation at the right time, production should reach (the celebrated number of) 820 tons!
  2. In November 05, 2021, they presented a very interesting report about Caatinga, a semi arid biome which is being threatened by desertification. The factors identified as responsible are: global warming, with regional temperatures that reached an increase of 5º C in some places, deforestation, fires, disorderly breeding of animals and agricultural cultivation with wrong techniques. To adapt to global warming, researchers from Embrapa Semiárido ( Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation) are studying 6 bean varieties to see which one adapts better to the aggravated heat conditions in the region, and they are already carrying out field tests with four of them that showed greater tolerance with excellent results.

On the one hand, I find it commendable that the agricultural sector is so resilient, working to adapt to and even take advantage of situations created and exacerbated by global warming. On the other hand, I find it disturbing that this same sector, which is investing money in research and adapting, is also responsible for the destruction of forests, as all these advances are made as a result of deforestation of native vegetation and the consequent alteration of the environment. I think it’s time for the sector to start tackling the causes that influence global warming itself besides only focusing on mitigating the effects. And when the rivers dry up, where will the water for irrigation come from?

Mentions calling Brazil the granary of the world are common and started in the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas (1937 to 1945), who used the slogan “Brazil, breadbasket of the world”. According to the CNA (Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock of Brazil), the country’s grain production alone is enough to feed four times its population, or more than 850 million people. In 2020, Brazilian agribusiness accounted for 26,6% of the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product), a jump compared from previous years, since 2012: 19,1% – 18,8% – 18,7% – 20,1% – 22,3% – 20,8% – 20,1% – 20,5% – 26,6% (source CEPEA). The sad truth is – for those in power – the dollars from agriculture and livestock export are all that matter.

DUST STORMS CAUSED BY THE DROUGHT

In September, 2021, dust storms were a headline in the Brazilian newspapers (watch the video). This happened in cities in the interior of the state of São Paulo. It is believed that the exposure of the soil by the burning used to cut sugarcane and the drought are among the main factors.

São Paulo (southeast) is far away from the Amazon Rainforest but there is a relationship through the transport of moisture from evapotranspiration (loss of water caused by evaporation from the soil and plant transpiration) from the forest to this region, so this state is also being affected by deforestation of the major forest. Since the “discovery” of Brazil, São Paulo has been deforested by itself as it is one of the main gateways to the country and a path for its exploration. Initially, sugar cane was planted here, then coffee and currently we also produce rice, peanuts, corn, fruits, soy, vegetables and greens, as well as some livestock. All of this leads to soil degradation problems, aggravated by the lack of protection of native vegetation, which has been poorly conserved.

REFORESTATION AND WATER CONSERVATION

Brazil has been suffering severely from a water crisis that threatens consumption, irrigation, navigation and the generation of hydroelectric energy, which represents 63% of our energy matrix. In the south, the Paraná River is facing a historic drought and the waterway has been paralyzed since September 2021, due to the low water level. But it is from the problems that solutions arise and in various regions of the country projects have emerged that integrate agriculture and the environment.

Let’s take a look at some of these pioneering initiatives, which use reforestation as a solution, from water recovery to control of emissions in livestock, with several other positive effects, such as a pleasant feeling of well-being for rural workers and greater engagement of the entire community.

Reforestation of a sugarcane mill in the city of Ourinhos, São Paulo

The farm reforested part of its land, planting 550,000 trees at a total cost of R$ 11 Mi (about 2 million dollars), and the results took several years to be felt. Among them are the recovery of riparian forests (which prevent the erosion and silting of rivers) and the creation of ecological corridors, through which animals can transit. A pleasant surprise was the recovery of springs and the realization that the vegetation cover is capable of recovering the land’s water potential.

Crop-livestock-forest integration (Integração lavoura-pecuária-floresta – ILPF)

Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation linked to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply) has been carrying out research on ILPF systems since the 1980s.

This is a production strategy that has been growing in Brazil in recent years. This form of integrated system seeks to optimize land use, raise productivity levels in the same area, use inputs better, diversify production and generate more income and employment. All of this is done in an environmentally correct manner, with low emissions of greenhouse gases or even mitigation of these gases.

Water Conservation Project (Projeto Conservador das Águas)

The project was conceived in 2005 through Municipal Law No. 2100 with the objective of maintaining the quality of water sources in Extrema (a city in the state of Minas Gerais – central region of Brazil) and promoting the environmental adequacy of rural properties. It prioritizes preventive rather than corrective action. It even includes payment for environmental services by the government (through a Federal Law) to rural producers, for reforestation and for the preservation of native forest! (Watch the video on this site. It is in Portuguese, but it is amazing to see the before and the after reforestation and the water volume recovery of spring).

From these projects, three conclusions can be drawn:

  1. Forests are extremely important for water conservation
  2. The cost and time for reforestation are very high
  3. Forests must be preserved

A STITCH IN TIME SAVES NINE

As a biology student, I visited the Cerrado and the Atlantic Forest. As a nature lover, I went to the Amazon Rainforest. All these biomes are unique and so exotic. As I watch the fires consuming trees more than 1000 years old, I think “How can there be people who in their right minds let this happen?” A skyscraper goes up in a few months, a city is built in a few years, but a forest takes millennia to form! We urgently need to stop consuming the planet’s resources so wildly.

Sometimes, I think of humanity as if we are a swarm of grasshoppers consuming everything in sight until there is nothing left. And when the resources run out, what will we consume? I also think about the younger ones, who want to be heard and participate in decisions but are pushed away precisely with the excuse that they are young. They are the ones who will inherit this sick planet that we are leaving.

The IPCC report was mentioned twice in this article, but the scientists have already done their work. They have proven that climate change is being caused by human activities and they have also designed scenarios for the future, based on our emissions from now on. At the moment, the average increase in global temperature is 1.07°C. Unfortunately, we are now facing the worst scenarios, because we are increasing our emissions instead of diminishing them! From now on, the challenges are mainly political and the agreements made at COP26 did not reflect the enormity of the problem we are facing, while the politicians continue to postpone taking real action to face the problem. Only solid governance, which recognizes the synergy between the multiple causes of the problem, and persistently invests in all of them, can reach a solution and the clock is ticking. We really need to…

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