Since Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office, governmental measures to curb illegal fires have shown little impact, as flames and deforestation erase vast swathes of the world’s biggest rainforest.
A tipping point?
As the trend goes on, the Amazon is speeding toward a tipping point, when large areas of the rainforest will no longer be able to produce enough rain to sustain itself, according to Carlos Nobre, one of Brazil’s leading climate scientists and researcher at the University of Sao Paulo.
Once that happens, the rainforest will begin to die, eventually turning into savannah, said Nobre.
The Brazilian Amazon’s deforestation has accelerated since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, and environmentalists accuse the president of encouraging development on protected lands.
However, INPE´s data appears to show that the ban was utterly ignored. From July 15 to the end of August, the fires in Amazon remained at the same level (around 35,000) and almost quadrupled (from 2035 to 7320 fires) in the Pantanal, compared to the same period in 2019.
The last frontier: Amazonas
The Brazilian state of Amazonas is one of the last frontiers where forests remain mostly preserved. But even there, illegal operations of loggers and ranchers are expanding.
Deforestation has grown 209% in Amazonas state since Bolsonaro took office — erasing 844 square miles of forest in less than two years.
Unregulated agricultural expansion drives local small farmers and ranchers further into the forest every year. “The lands that are closer to the main roads are more concentrated in the possession of a few big landowners, so landowners with less economic power are pushed further into the forest, whether by economic pressure, political pressure or by the use of violence,” said Rômulo Batista, senior forest campaigner of Greenpeace.
And every time the agricultural frontier is pushed inside the forest, the Amazon gets closer to its tipping point.
One symptom of the accelerating deforestation is longer dry seasons, Nobre said. This will initially be felt in Brazil and elsewhere in South America, as the Amazon generates a great part of the rains for the rest of the country, and also affects the rains in neighboring Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina.
And even farmers and ranchers will feel the consequences. “This ‘savannah-ization’ of the Amazon will lead to a reduction in rainfall that will affect especially the agricultural sector, which is driving deforestation further. It’s a real shot in the foot,” Batista said.
“It’s hard to say when it’s going to happen, but we are seeing that it is coming faster than we previously thought,” Nobre said.