“Our House Is On Fire”
“Our house is on fire,” declared French President Macron, describing the fires burning across Brazil’s vast interior. Satellite imagery revealed clouds of smoke from the thousands of fires obscuring large portions of South America, including the skies of Sao Paulo on Monday, August 20. News outlets described the Amazon forests as the “lungs of the planet,” and articles warned of the Amazon “tipping” from its present forested state to one in which only savannah ecosystems could survive. Blame for the fires was laid at the feet of President Bolsonaro, whose anti-environmental, pro-development policies were encouraging rampant conversion of forests to agriculture, mining, timber, and cattle operations.
President Bolsonaro’s position on the use of Brazil’s natural resources has been clear: Brazil, not the international community will determine their best use. Concern regarding the ongoing Amazon fires was highlighted at the just-concluded G7 meeting in Biarritz, where President Macron had declared them a “global emergency,” and the G7 agreed to provide funding to fight the fires and aid in reforestation. (The Guardian, August 26, 2019) However, in a tweet, President Bolsonaro appeared to reject the G7 proposal, asserting that the G7 was treating Brazil as a colonial entity. A further exchange of tweets between the French and Brazilian leaders ensued, which did little to ease the situation.
Is This Fire Season Different?
The fire season in the southern Amazon runs from June to December, with peak burning activity in September (Global Fire Data) This website has a great deal of information regarding global fire activity, so let’s take a look at some of the data for the Amazon Region (“Legal Amazon”). Since 2012, VIIRS satellite data has been available along with the older, somewhat less accurate MODIS data. (The VIIRS data has a resolution of about 375 meters, as compared to about 1 kilometer for MODIS.)
Here are a few highlights:
1. As of August 31, the 2019 fire season has the highest count since 2012, when VIIRS data became available.
2. Fires in 2019 are more intense than in previous years, as measured in terms of radiative power.
3. There has been a noticeable increase in large, intense, and persistent fires burning along major roads in the central Brazilian Amazon, which is more consistent with land clearing than regional drought. (NASA Earth Observatory) As an example, the screenshot below is an enlargement of an unprotected area in Para’ shows the clustering of fires adjacent to existing roads in the middle of the image. Darker areas are unprotected forests, lighter areas above and below the dark green are National Parks.
4. However, if we look at 2019 MODIS Fire Alerts, through August 31 for all of Brazil, 2019 (red line) doesn’t look at all unusual as compared to many other fires seasons.
5. Another representation of the historical data reinforces this impression that the 2019 fire season may be well below many other years.
6. Fire alerts in Intact Forest Landscape Areas appear to include only 6% of the impacted areas.
It’s Too Early To Draw Conclusions
There is no doubt that August 2019 has seen an historically high number of fires in the Amazon, but we will not have the full picture until the end of the fire season, when satellite imagery can be compared to pre-2019 data to determine the precise location and true extent of the fires. The degree to which previously intact tropical forest or other threatened biomes have been transformed by fire won’t be known until this type of analysis can be made. Satellite imagery clearly shows many fires both within and adjacent to Brazilian National Parks. For example, the screenshot below (NASA Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS)) shows an area of Para’ with numerous fires in the dark greenish black (unprotected) areas as well as in the protected (lighter green) areas.
However, cumulative monthly fire counts (January-August 31) for 2019 in Para’ are well below many other years (next figure), a further indication that it is simply too soon to draw conclusions and issue condemnations about the overall extent of fire damage.
Global Demand Drives Local Change
To return to President Bolsonaro’s assertion that the disposition of Brazil’s forest resources are a Brazilian, not international issue, this is a much more complicated issue than the President’s statement would indicate. Surging global demand for soy has been met by Brazil, Argentina and the United States. As of 2018, it is likely that Brazil will surpass the United States as both the largest producer and exporter of soy.(TRASE Yearbook 2018) Brazil has produced soy first by converting vast undeveloped subtropical regions in its south, then into tropical areas, into the Cerrado (largest savanna region in South America, largely unprotected) in the mid-1990’s, and now into the agricultural frontier area of Matopiba. The conversion of undisturbed forests and other biomes in Brazil to the production of soy as well as other agricultural products (e.g., sugarcane, beef, timber) has been well-documented and ongoing for many years. Soybean exports are now valued at over USD 20 billion, making them Brazil’s most valuable export commodity. (TRASE Yearbook 2018)
An estimated 1.8 million ha of soy in the Amazon in 2016 and 3.5 million ha of soy in the Cerrado in 2015 were undeveloped in the year 2000—amounting to about 40% and 20% of the total area of soy in each biome (TRASE Yearbook 2018 Chapter 3)
A complex network of producers, export and import entities links local land use change across Brazil to global consumers. The screenshots from the website (TRASE) illustrates some of these linkages. Soy is used as feed for pigs and chickens, and is exported in vast quantities to China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of pork. (Brazil is also the world’s largest exporter of chickens.) The pig population in China is estimated to be nearly 500,000,000 and China doesn’t have the land to supply soy for this plethora of pork. Instead, it has reduced the amount of land planted to soy and become the world’s largest consumer of soy (around 60% of global exports), primarily from Brazil.
This dependence on Brazilian soy will likely increase due to the ongoing and escalating trade war between the United States and China. Prior to the imposition of tariffs, Chinese soy demand had also been met by the United States, but the tariff war is likely to incentive the Brazilians to increase soy production, as China shifts from America to Brazil to meet its soy needs. In a grim analysis of the possible deforestation consequences of such a shift, a report in Nature (Trade War Disaster for the Amazon) in March estimated that “soya-bean production in Brazil could increase by up to 39%, to 13 million hectares.” Following the historical pattern of Brazilian soy production, the ready availability undeveloped land will lead to agricultural extensification, rather than intensification.
U.S. Farmers Expand Production
Just as their Brazilian counterparts, American farmers respond to global and domestic demands agricultural commodities by expanding production. They have planted more soy for export, and they have planted more corn in response to biofuel mandates by the federal government. This has come largely at the expense of previously intact grasslands.* In the 8 year period between 2008 and 2016, 10 million acres (4,047,000 ha) of grassland, shrubland, wetland and forestland were converted to crop production in the United States, more than half of which was planted in corn and soy. 80% of new cropland came from grassland ecosystems, of which 2.2 million acres were intact grasslands, defined as “those which had not been previously planted or plowed and are most likely to contain native species and sod.” The rate of land conversion has continued at nearly 1 million acres per year.
The conversion of grassland between 2008-2012 released more than 14 million metric tons of carbon per year—equivalent to yearly emissions from 13 coal-fired power plants.
This extensification of agricultural production has occurred in the Dakotas, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as areas bordering Canada in the Northern Great Plains. As in the case of Brazil, extensification has converted previously intact ecosystems, which provide valuable environmental services, including protection of water quality, critical habitat for bird species, pollination, prevention of soil and nutrient loss, and carbon sequestration. In the case of grassland ecosystems as well as tropical forests, carbon sequestration is particularly important as a means of buffering continued accumulation of anthropogenically sourced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
*Source: Gibbs Lab
A Telecoupled World
Conversion of intact biomes to agroecosystems is not unique to Brazil or the United States; agriculture occupies about 38% of Earth’s terrestrial surface, making it the largest use of land on the planet (Solutions for A Cultivated Planet). Flows of energy, resources, information, etc., couple human socioeconomic systems and environmental systems, forming a telecoupled system (Framing Sustainability in a Telecoupled World, one of the hallmarks of the Anthropocene. The relationship between China and Brazil exemplifies this system, driving both extensification and intensification of soy production in Brazil, as vast quantities of soy product flow back to China. Smaller quantities flow to many other nations, including members of the G7. Through the work of TRASE researchers, the linkages between import/export entities and deforestation have been brought into the open, and it has become clear that a handful of enormous, largely privately held companies dominate these flows. Land use decisions in Brazil are thus determined by both Brazilian governmental decisions, as well as those of these often vertically integrated transnational agricultural entities.
In a telecoupled world, it is increasingly difficult to disentangle local land use decisions from global economic forces. Thus, President Bolsinaro’s claim that Brazilian resources are to be disposed of only by Brazil, is not really that simple. Brazilian resource decisions can be influenced by end-users, mediated by a very complex interplay of actors. Ultimately making a transition to sustainability in the Amazon and elsewhere will be very challenging. For example, despite the much larger volume of soy exports from Brazil to China, the sourcing of soy from Brazil to Europe actually exposes European nations to higher deforestation risk than China (TRASE 2018 Annual Report)
We Are All Complicit
In a telecoupled world of nearly 8 billion, conversion of vast ecosystems matters in ways that weren’t apparent in earlier eras. In the plow up of the Great Plains grassland of the United States in the 19th and early 20th century, the near extinction of the buffalo, decimation and relocation of indigenous peoples wasn’t an issue of global concern. Now, when Brazil is treating its vast frontier regions in much the same fashion as did the United States, it does matter.
We in the developed world still have our hands dirty; be it grassland conversion in the United States, deforestation of boreal forests in Canada, destruction of the ancient Hambach Forest in Germany for production of lignite—one of the dirtiest of coals. Why should the Brazilians listen to us?
Moreover, why should the Brazilians change their behavior? Perhaps the Chinese should reduce their pork consumption, the Europeans reduce their intake of beef, Americans change their toilet paper purchases from Canadian-sourced pulp to recycled? In other words, we have outsourced our resource demands from domestic to foreign sources, but want these resources to be extracted on our terms—something we aren’t even doing ourselves. Can we really have it both ways in a telecoupled world?
President Macron condemns the Brazilians for burning their (“our”) forests. Who, exactly is lighting the match?
Image of Match: yaoqi-lai-7iatBuqFvY0-unsplash.jpg