Fires in the Amazon have surged by 83 per cent compared to the same period a year earlier, government figures show, and environmentalists blamed the sharp rise on farmers setting the forest alight to clear land for pasture.
Farmers may have had at least tacit encouragement from the firebrand right-wing president, who took power in January. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly said he believes Brazil should open the Amazon up to business interests, to allow mining, agricultural and logging companies to exploit its natural resources.
Brazil has the biggest share of the 670 million hectares of forest (60 per cent) comprising the Amazon rainforest, which is home to more species than anywhere else on the planet.
According to a post by the World Wildlife Fund, cattle ranching is the number one cause of deforestation in the Amazon. The agricultural management practice of setting fires to the forests to clear space for cattle farming has captivated the world and is driving advocacy groups to criticize Bolsonaro’s policies.
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Cattle farming in the Amazon
According to a study completed by the World Forestry Congress in 2003, 15 per cent of the Amazon forest has been replaced and 80 per cent of the deforested areas have been covered by pastures (equalling approximately 900,000 km squared).
While deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has dropped significantly over the past decade, it has recently increased again and remains “the largest driver of deforestation in every Amazon country, according to a research document from the Yale department of environmental studies
“Brazil had been implementing very serious deforestation policies, which were working,” said Florencia Ortúzar, a lawyer with the Latin American environmental group, AIDA. “It’s one of the countries that most emits greenhouse gas emissions, and it is mainly due to deforestation of the forest. With the new president Bolsonaro, he doesn’t mind about the environment. He dismantled all of that, and the Amazon is much more unprotected than before.”
“This gives courage to all of these farmers. They are encouraged by these public policies that are making it easier to get into the Amazon,” she continued.
The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has recorded more than 74,000 fires so far this year, compared to over 40,000 fires which burned in the region last year – which constitutes an increase of 84 per cent compared to the same period in 2018. It’s the highest number since records began in 2013.
The second-worst year for forest fires was 2016 with almost 70,000 fires burning.
Environmentalists have blamed Bolsonaro, who has long been accused of neglecting global climate change and endangering the rainforest. The current president, who took office in January of this year, campaigned on a pro-business position.
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“It has a big, big impact on global climate change because of all the emissions that are being released. We may reach inflection points, turning points, where the forest cannot regenerate anymore,” Ortúzar said.
Bolsonaro has suggested that the data showing the increase in wildfires isn’t accurate — even going as far as to blame NGOs without evidence for starting fires. He said his government is working to control the fires, but it’s not clear what measures the administration is taking.
“I am waiting for the next set of numbers, that will not be made up numbers,” he said this week. “If they are alarming, I will take notice of them in front of you.”
Other environmental issues with cattle farming
In addition to deforestation in the Amazon, climate scientists and agencies have expressed concerns about other environmental harm posed by cattle and livestock farming..
The complete process of livestock farming (including clearing land for pastures and crops, the transportation of meat products, etc.) contributes 18 per cent of human produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Ortúzar explained that there are a number of ways beyond deforestation that cattle ranching harms the environment.
“Apart from deforestation from the same cattle, there’s also deforestation from the soy they farm to feed the cattle. The cattle makes a lot of methane emissions, and methane is a climate enforcer that is much more harmful than CO2,” she said.
WATCH: Record-breaking wildfires scorch Brazil’s Amazon rainforests
Kathy Hochstetler, an environmental science professor at the London School of Economics, said in a statement that while some of the soybean is used for cattle farming in Brazil, almost all of it will be exported and is used as animal feed in Europe, China and elsewhere — strengthening the link to cattle raising around the world.
In August, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in a report that plant-based diets are a major opportunity for adapting to and mitigating climate change.
“It doesn’t mean one couldn’t ever eat beef, but that we collectively need to eat much less of it if we want to reduce the climate change and land degradation effects from it,” Hochstetler explained.
—With files from Reuters and Rachael D’amore.