BRASILIA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Deforestation in the Amazon rose by more than half in the first three months of 2020 compared to 2019, and with forest debris likely to be burned starting next month the region could see an even bigger fire season than last year, Amazon researchers said.
With the country already battling an outbreak of coronavirus - a disease that affects breathing - a bad smoke season could be disastrous, they said.
“What was illegally cleared in the rainy season will be burned in the dry season to clear the land,” said Claudia Azevedo-Ramos, a researcher at the Center for Higher Amazonian Studies at the Federal University of Pará.
“There is a high probability of experiencing fires as serious or more serious than those we faced in 2019,” she said.
The number of fires in the Amazon rainforest rose 30% last year compared to the previous year, according to data released by space research agency INPE in January.
This year, the state of Pará recorded a more than 240% hike in deforestation from January to March compared to 2019, when it was already hard hit by fire.
Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of MapBiomas Alert, a partnership that validates deforestation alerts in Brazil, said the outbreak of coronavirus in the country had led the country to cut back on efforts to protect the Amazon.
Now, with the dry season starting in May in the Amazon, fires were likely to be larger and more destructive than last year, warned Azevedo, who also coordinates the SEEG Network, which estimates greenhouse gas emissions.
Smoke from Amazon fires last year swept into major Brazilian cities, causing breathing difficulties. This year, with the country already battling a virus epidemic characterised by respiratory difficulties, things could be worse, he said.
Amazon cities such as Porto Velho, Rio Branco and Cuiaba could be particularly badly affected, he noted.
“Every effort to stop the fire issue will be fundamental,” he said, adding that the combination of fire and the virus would be “a disaster”.
Azevedo said authorities should ban the use of fire in clearing agricultural land for the duration of the pandemic.
But enforcing a burning ban would be challenging. The Brazilian state of Paris is larger than Spain, France and Portugal combined, and has only 10 state environmental inspectors, said the Para secretary of environment.
Ibama, the country’s environmental enforcement agency, has fewer than 50 agents in the state.
With even fewer agents likely to be in the field as a result of the virus pandemic, an emergency force of 75 inspectors should begin work soon, according to the Para government.
Crews carrying out deforestation “are not quarantined and are taking advantage of the situation to intensify illegal activities”, said Azevedo-Ramos.
“All of these elements also contribute to an increase in violence in the countryside”, she warned.
Azevedo said another worry is that sales of crawler tractors hit record levels in the first three months of 2020, with more than 200 sold, higher than the previous three years combined, according to the Brazilian association of vehicle manufacturers.
The vehicles are a type of miniature bulldozer with tank-like tracks to move over uneven ground.
“You use a crawler tractor for two things: civil construction, which is not the case in Brazil at the moment in the middle of an economic crisis, or to deforest,” Azevedo said.
The surging sales suggest deforestation is set to soar, he said, as the pandemic spreads in the Amazon.
Amazonas, Brazil’s largest Amazon-region state, has already declared a collapse of its health system, after more than 1,700 confirmed cases and 120 deaths.
Altogether the Amazon region has seen more than 3,700 cases of the virus and more than 200 deaths.
Azevedo-Ramos is emphatic said Brazilian officials need to make clear that a surge in Amazon clearing will not be tolerated.
But Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has pushed for development on indigenous lands, including in the Amazon, and in February presented a bill to Congress that would open up indigenous forest reserves for mining and commercial farming.
As long as officials fail to crack down hard on deforestation, and punishments remain weak for those caught, “we will be at a disadvantage in this war” to stem forest losses, Azevedo-Ramos said.