While rates of forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon have been on the decline since 2004, the incidence of fire is increasing in the region, undermining some of the carbon emissions savings of reduced deforestation rates, report researchers writing in the journal Science.
Fire is widely used in the Amazon as a means to manage land, including to clear vegetation for intensive agriculture (e.g. soy cultivation) and cattle ranching. But fires—which are naturally rare in the Amazon—are prone to escape into adjacent forest areas, especially during dry months when most burning occurs. Some scientists expect drying in the region to worsen as ocean temperatures in the tropical Atlantic rise due to climate change, increasing fire risk. For example increased surfaced temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Atlantic in 2005 triggered the worst drought on record in the Amazon. Rivers dried up, communities were stranded, and tens of thousands of fires raged across thousands of square miles (kilometers) of Amazonia. Researchers estimate the 2005 event released 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or more than the combined annual emissions of Japan and Europe. In normal years the Amazon is a net sink for 2 billion tons of CO2.
Given the damage wrought by fire management and trends toward increased burning, a number of prominent Amazon scientists have called for strengthening of fire policy in Brazil. Now a new paper by Luiz Aragão of the University of Exeter and Yosio E. Shimabukuro of Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) argues that REDD, a global plan to reduce deforestation and forest degradation, must include measures to eliminate the use of fire from land management in the Amazon. The authors note that fire occurrence rates in the Amazon have increased in 59% of areas that have reduced deforestation.
"Changes in fire frequency could jeopardize the benefits achieved through UN-REDD as trends in fires are the opposite to trends in deforestation. However despite UN-REDD’s vital importance in this region, fire is currently neglected in the emerging UN framework," said Aragão in a statement.
"We need to change the way Amazonian people use and manage their land so that they can do this without fire. They would need financial assistance for machinery, training and technical support to enable them to comply with implementation and maintenance of fire-free management of their land."
Tree death caused by understory fire as evidence of fire leakage from surrounding farms into the edge of an Amazonian forest in Mato Grosso state, southeast Amazonia. Photo by Luiz Aragão
Aragão and Shimabukuro estimate that an organized fire policy in the Brazilian Amazon could reduce the incidence of fire by nearly 70 percent, significantly cutting carbon emissions. Such a policy could help the Brazilian government meet its ambitious emissions reductions target for 2020, which includes a goal of reducing Amazon deforestation rates by roughly 70 percent. The plan will be partly financed by foreign donors, whom are expected to make contributions based on Brazil's performance in reducing emissions.
The authors conclude by noting that a failure to adopt an effective fire policy could jeopardize these funds for Brazil as well as REDD programs in other tropical countries.
"Failure to tackle fire use in this region may discourage investors and donors within the REDD framework because of the risk that gains through deforestation reduction may be outweighed by carbon losses resulting from fire."
CITATION: Luiz Aragão and Yosio Shimabukuro. The Incidence of Fire in Amazonian Forests with Implications for REDD. SCIENCE VOL 328 4 JUNE 2010