Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: See also Rainforest on Fire elsewhere in this issue.]

Amazon Fires Worse Than Indonesia's

by Danielle Knight

Almost 25,000 fires appeared this year
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Satellite images indicate that the smoke clouds over the Amazon rain forest are much larger and thicker than those produced by the forest fires currently raging in Indonesia, according to environmentalists.

"While the world concentrates on the current crisis in Southeast Asia, a far greater long-term crisis of ranchers clearing land by burning continues to exist in the Amazon," says Steve Schwartzman of the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Analysis of images picked up by the U.S. satellite NOAA-12 indicates that burning in the Brazilian Amazon increased 28 percent between 1996 and 1997. About 20,000 fires were reported from the satellite images in 1996 while almost 25,000 fires appeared this year, according to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

"The immense smoke clouds hanging over the Amazon forest cover millions of square kilometers and are far larger and thicker than the smoke from burning forests in Indonesia which have produced an international catastrophe," INPE says. Tremendous forest fires currently raging in Indonesia are causing unprecedented air pollution problems in Southeast Asia.

Tax incentives encouraged multinational corporations such as mining, logging and oil to come to the area
Environmentalists say that it is not surprising that smoke clouds over the Amazon are larger since fires in this region have been blazing for years. The scope of the fires in the Amazon may even be underestimated. Since the satellite only passes over the Amazon at night, only the largest and longest fires are recorded, says Schwartzman. "The vast majority of the fires are due to land cleared by large ranches owned by wealthy Brazilians."

While some of the fires take place on already cleared land, increased burning strongly suggests that the rate of deforestation has increased, Schwartzman says. The most recent official deforestation analysis, released last year, showed that forest clearing had risen about 34 percent between 1991 and 1994.

World famous for its unique wealth of biodiversity, the Amazon rainforest contains millions species of animal and plant life. This recent satellite data only increases global concern of deforestation of this area, say environmentalists.

Most of the fires are concentrated along a belt which spreads along the southern Amazon, notably in the states of Matto Grosso and Para, but the largest fires have been detected to the west of the rain forest. The lack of visibility in the Amazon region has become routine, regularly forcing airports to close because of poor visibility. Authorities have announced that the number of people with difficulty breathing who are seeking assistance at hospitals has skyrocketed.

While most of the "slash and burn" land clearance is for the creation of cattle pasture and agricultural land, environmentalists say these new areas of forest are made accessible by the construction of logging roads.

"We need to look at the root cause of why the Amazon is being developed," says Shannon Wright of the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network.

"Logging roads, mainly for mahogany, serve as openings to ranching projects and settlements," she told IPS. Logging corporations invest in the building of roads because of the large profits they receive from the rare mahogany wood, which is mainly exported to the United States.

"It is these roads that allow ranchers access into these remote parts of the rain forest," she says.

In the 1960s the Brazilian government began its effort to economically develop the Amazon basin. Tax incentives encouraged multinational corporations such as mining, logging and oil to come to the area. This development continues to lead to deforestation and the polluting of Indigenous peoples' land, say environmentalists.

Environmentalists point to the lack of enforcement of Brazil's existing forestry and logging legislation as another cause of the increase in forest fires. A recent official Brazilian report concluded that 80 percent of the timber produced in the Amazon is extracted illegally.

Yet Brazil's environmental agency, IBAMA, has no authority to enforce environmental legislation, says Schwartzman. Only about 6.5 percent of the fines levied by IBAMA are collected.

"Because IBAMA is powerless, there is practically no environmental law enforcement in the Amazon," says Schwartzman. The Brazilian House of Representatives, which many claim has ties to national logging companies, is currently blocking legislation that would strengthen IBAMA and help stop the forest fires.

Much of Amazon is near the limit of its capacity to remain green during the dry season
Increased burning may also provoke unexpected larger consequences, says the U.S.-based Woods Hole Research Institute and the Brazilian Institute of Environmental Research in the Amazon. They estimate as much as half of the forest in the eastern and southern Amazon, where deforestation and burning have been heaviest, is near the limit of its capacity to remain green during the dry season.

And with a drier Amazon climate predicted because of global warming and the effects of El Nino -- the powerful, warm Pacific Ocean current -- even more forest area could go up in flames. "Increased burning releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the air which could make worse the already serious environmental and health problems," Schwartzman says.

Carbon dioxide contributes to what many scientists identify as a trend toward global warming or the greenhouse effect that many say will cause drastic changes in global climate including severe droughts, floods and the melting of polar ice caps.

At the world conference on climate change in Kyoto, Japan later this year, countries will decide on limits of carbon dioxide emissions. These limits may force the Brazilian government to increase enforcement of environmental laws, environmentalists hope.

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Albion Monitor October 6, 1997 (

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