Albion Monitor /News

El Niño Strikes Amazon Hard

by Mario Osava

1997 a bad year for Brazil
(IPS) RIO DE JANEIRO -- Freakish weather attributed to the phenomenon known as El Niño -- an unusually warm Pacific current -- is causing one of the most prolonged and intense droughts in the history of the Amazonian region. This, on top of the usual environmental hazards such as fires and deforestation has made 1997 a bad year for Brazil.

The scarcity of rain has caused a drop in water levels right along the Amazon River, dried up areas that are usually flooded, and altered ecological conditions so as to increase the likelihood of fires, which already have destroyed millions of hectares of forest.

For the first time, Manaos, the capital of the state of Amazonia, and a center which has suffered relatively little deforestation, was covered by smoke that forced it to shut down its airport for several days. A similar scenario is affecting the southern and eastern parts of the country, where agriculture has been expanding by burning down sections of forests.

The current drought is due to a prolonged dry season caused by El Niño , combined with the paving of the highway that connects Manaos with the Venezuelan border, said Carlos Nobre, an expert in meteorology at the National Institute of Space Research (INPE).

New legislation to preserve 50 to 80 percent of each Amazonian property has had the opposite effect, pushing landowners to deforest their land more rapidly
In the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, the government used tax incentives to encourage livestock-raising in the area north of Manaos, which was later abandoned when it became deforested.

The vegetation was just beginning to regenerate when the asphalt came last year, allowing better access to the region and stimulating economic recovery, Nobre said

Other factors contributed to this process of deforestation, considered the worst of the Amazonian forest, said Alberto Setzer, also a researcher at the INPE, which monitors forest fires through a system of satellite images.

New legislation which raised the mandatory percentage of preserved area in each Amazonian property from 50 to 80 percent, had the opposite effect in the short term, pushing landowners to deforest their land more rapidly in order to register it as cultivated land, Setzer explained.

Brazil's economic growth since the stabilization of the currency in 1994 also stimulated greater land use and the execution of new projects.

"El Niño was only one of the factors," Setzer said, although an important one. The drought led to "many forest fires that could not be controlled" by those who set them, surpassing the borders of their respective properties and even reaching neighboring original forests, he added.

Another problem is that the scarcity of rainfall has affected the heart of the Amazonian region and its most vital element: water. The water level has rarely been so low, while lagoons and related ecosystems have become isolated. The full gravity of the situation will only be known in the medium term.

For the past several weeks Manaos has been without electricity for about six hours a day because the water shortage diminishes the capacity of the hydro-electric dams.

Some cities have seen water levels in local rivers, their only means of transportation, decline so sharply that they have become too shallow for larger boats to navigate.

Many recently hatched turtles are dying of dehydration because their nests are now so far from the rivers or lagoons due to irregular ebbs and flows, said biologist Juarez Brito Pezzuti, who wrote his Master's thesis on the behavior of Amazonian tortoises.

In his fieldwork, conducted in 1996, Pezzuti found that the birth rate of tortoises is declining rapidly, mainly due to human consumption of their eggs, but also because their nests are flooded regularly.

Now, with the drought, there is no water to drown the eggs, and an increase in animal mortality due to thirst and greater exposure to their natural predators, which are "much more concentrated in much smaller volumes of water," he said.

"We are sure, although not absolutely sure, that the level of rainfall -- far below the average -- is due to El Niño." This occurred once in 1983, when temperatures in the Pacific reached unusually high temperatures, said Carlos Nobre.

The lack of rainfall has especially affected the center-north and northeast of the Amazonian region, extending from northern Brazil up to Venezuela, Suriname and Guyana, he said.

But there is no telling what will happen in the coming months. "The effects of El Niño are different every time," said the researcher.

In any case, even if the rain does return soon, it will be several months before river levels return to normal, especially in the northern tributaries of the Amazon, concluded Nobre.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor November 24, 1997 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page