According to Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, the number of fires detected by satellite in the Amazon region this month is the highest since 2010. Photo: Victor Moriyama / Getty Images.

Experts said the flames sweeping the Amazon — with over 40,000 fires recorded this year in the Amazon alone, a number that is bound to increase as the dry season continues, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) — have ramifications for the globe.

“These are big forests: They cover about 40 percent of South America, which is equivalent to two-thirds of the area of the US, close to the total land area of Middle East and North Africa (MENA) states,” Tony Addison, chief economist and deputy director for the UN World Institute for Development Economics Research, told Arab News.

“The recent Amazon fires are extremely worrying and nobody should be deceived into thinking that they are somehow normal. We now need to go beyond words and see concrete action and significant investment to rapidly shift damaging land-use practices onto a more sustainable footing.”

— Toby Gardner, SEI researcher and Director of Trase

The fires worsen the climate crisis

SEI’s Toby Gardner continued: “The number of fires is not the most significant factor, it is the area that they impact, and we will only see that once the smoke has cleared and we can assess the full extent of the damage at the end of the dry season. But when you can see smoke covering the atmosphere in places such as Sao Paulo, then that is very worrying.”

Gardner, who has spent the last 20 years working to highlight environmental changes in the Amazon, said the areas that have been most impacted are those that have been burnt before, and have also been subject to unsustainable logging. These degraded forests are more open and drier than undisturbed rainforest and are therefore more vulnerable to future fires.

If the trends continue, Gardner said the whole ecosystem could “shift away from being a tropical rainforest to something that is unrecognizable: a dry scrub-like ecosystem, hosting a shadow of the diversity of the original rainforest and made up of common species that dominate degraded land. The more a forest is degraded and pushed to a tipping point the more it becomes an actual source, rather than a sink, of carbon dioxide.”

Carlos Nobre, a leading climate scientist at the University of Sao Paulo’s Institute of Advanced Studies, told Arab News: “Most of the fires in the Amazon region are set by people to clear new areas – and mostly for cattle grazing. Clearcutting rates are higher this year and likely the highest of the decade.”

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has faced worldwide criticism for the role of his administration in contributing towards this worsening trend.

Addison said in addition to seriously affecting the biodiversity of the region, the fires further worsen the climate crisis due to carbon emissions from the burning of organic materials. The ripple effect, said Addison, will be felt globally, including in the Arab world that is already experiencing extremely hostile temperatures.

Toby Gardner concluded: “We now need to go beyond words and see concrete action and significant investment to rapidly shift damaging land-use practices onto a more sustainable footing.”