Brazilian Amazon Burns at an Accelerating Rate

A 30% increase in forest cover loss over last year

Here Is Some of What Is Being Lost

A report from Brazil’s National Institute for Space research (NYT 11.19.19) tells us that the Brazilian Amazon lost 3,768 square miles of forest cover in the period from August 2018 through July 2019. This is a 30% increase in forest destruction over the year before. See the Brazilian report here.

For more on the topic of deforestation in the Amazon see below for citations from Yale Environment 360.

The area of the Amazon, or Amazonia, or the Amazon Rainforest, covers over 2 million square miles in nine countries. In addition to Brazil, Peru, and Columbia which contain major portions of Amazonia, lesser amounts of forest are found in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.

Clearing and Burning

Much of the forest destruction is because of illegal forest clearing and burning. There was a brief decrease in illegal forest clearing and burning between 2004-2008 which saw deforestation decrease by 80% (Bird Life Magazine Oct-Dec. 2019, p 22-23). But now, forest clearing and burning is on the rise again. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research detected 74,000 fires between Jan 1 and August 20, 2019–an 84% increase from 2018 and the most since 2010. (Bird Life Magazine, Oct-Dec. 2019, p 24.)

This is heartbreaking, on many levels. But is especially poignant for one of the lucky few, like myself, that have set foot in the Amazon rainforest and know from firsthand experience what is at stake.

Forest destruction of the Amazon, “the lungs of the world”–so called because it stores carbon and releases huge amounts of oxygen into the atmosphere–is not only bad news for the forest itself–which experts say is suffering “irreparable harm”–but also to the Earth’s climate as more and more carbon is released into the atmosphere from the fires ravaging the rainforest. The Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service estimates that 228 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent were released from the Brazilian Amazon during the first eight months of 2019.

Eyewitness In, and Above, the Rainforest

Standing above the rainforest canopy on an observation tower in the early morning one can actually see the forest breathing, as in the photo below in the Cristalino Reserve in the southern Brazilian Amazon in northern Mato Grosso.

Also being lost as the forest is clear-cut and burned, is the rich biodiversity of plants and animals for which the Amazon provides habitat.

We may never have a full accounting–if ever, a full tally will only be known in the mid and long-term– of the species whose numbers are reduced as their forest habitat burns. It is likely that some may even go extinct.

I have been very fortunate to see, albeit a tiny portion, of untouched southern Amazon tropical forest in the State of Mato Grosso. I know of a small bit of what is likely to be lost. I would like to share, with you, some of my images of the birds, animals, and forest types that are at risk elsewhere in Brazil and throughout Amazonia.

I have seen this destruction first hand during a trip to Brazil a few years ago. We stayed at a private reserve and eco-lodge in the southern Brazilian Amazon. From the tiny airport in Alta Floresta, the regional agricultural center, we drove north for an hour or more, through mile after mile of range-land and crop fields that our guide told us was, just 30 years ago, primary undisturbed rainforest.

Brazilian State of Mato Grosso

The Brazilian State of Mato Grosso is one of the areas of Amazonia most heavily impacted by cutting and burning of the rainforest. The cleared land is used to raise cattle for export to the US market, or grow soybeans for use in thousands of consumer food products.

The Cristalino RPPN (Private National Heritage Reserve) reserve protects over 28,000 acres (44 square miles) of the Amazon. It is a refuge for endangered species such as the jaguar, bush dog, puma, giant anteater and sloth and is home to more than seven species of monkey, including the endemic white-whiskered spider monkey, a symbol of the Cristalino State Park. Other forest dwellers include the giant armadillo, giant otter and many species of butterfly and frog. The refuge protects 586 bird species, 5% of the world’s estimated 10.000 species. A third of all Brazilian birds – of a total of 1,800 species, including the harpy eagle, wrens, macaws, parrots and toucans – can be seen in and around the reserve.

The Cristalino reserve is unlikely to be destroyed–at least in the foreseeable future–and its species and habitats are safe, for now. Meaning that the species and scenes shown below are probably going to not be directly harmed, but possibly impacted by increasing isolation, and decreasing home ranges as surrounding rainforest is cut and burned.

The tiger heron was one of the 250 species of birds we saw while at the Cristalino Lodge–barely 30% of the 856 species known to inhabit the reserve.

The species in Cristalino are representative of the biodiversity found elsewhere in the Amazon. These species faces habitat loss, population decline, and possible extinction as humans continue to destroy the rainforest. For example, elsewhere in the Cristalino region, the Globally vulnerable Golden Parakeet (Guaraba guarouba) is feared to be at risk when fires overlap with its range.

Rainforest along the Rio Cristalino in Mato Grosso Brazil.

My birdwatching party and I spent six days at Cristalino, rising at 4am for breakfast at 4:30, we would hit the trail at 5 am to be in the best position possible for birdwatching by sunrise at 6 am. The above image was taken on just such a morning. After a long boat ride up the Rio Cristalino, we hiked up the Hill Trail to the bluff-top above the river to await sunrise and the flights of the scarlet macaws up the river valley.

Enroute up the Rio Cristalino to the Hill Trail.

The Rio Cristalino itself was one of the best bird-watching spots. As we motored slowly, and silently up the river, our guides pointed out many new and unusual bird species. Here are a couple more that we saw.

The Capped heron (Pilherodius pileatus).
Razor-billed Curassow (Mitu tuberosum)
Sunset along the Rio Crustulano.

What we saw during our days at Cristilano was a stark contrast with the soybean fields and cattle pastures in the former rainforest just outside the Cristilano boundary. The devastation sadly reminded me of what the American agricultural and cattle industry has done to the great midwestern prairie landscape: a sea of grass and prairie flowers replaced with vast croplands and dairy farms in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and other prairie states. Left in the wake of the plow and cow is poisoned water, degraded soil, and a threadbare social and cultural fabric.

The Brazilians are following in our destructive footsteps. One can only hope–for the sake of the Earth–that they wake up in time and also take up the creative action of ecological restoration–the disciplined initiated in the Midwest as a response to agricultural-caused degradation of the land.s

Further Reading on the subject from Yale Environment 360

Amazon Watch: What Happens When the Forest Disappears? by Fred Pearce.

Rivers in the Sky: How Deforestation is Affecting Global Water Cycles, by Fred Pearce.

Will Deforestation and Warming Push the Amazon to a Tipping Point? by Fen Montaigne.

About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner (#0093 SER) and writer living in the Midwestern United States.
This entry was posted in Amazonia in flames, Brazilian Amazon, diminishment of the Earth. Bookmark the permalink.

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