Photo/IllutrationThe effect of fires deliberately set in the Amazon rainforest after illegal logging operations (Tetsuro Takehana)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Thick smoke rose up in the forest along the road to Bacaja from Altamira in the Brazilian state of Para.

With a population of about 100,000, Altamira is located in the eastern part of the Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world.

Bacaja is a protected area set aside for the indigenous people of Brazil, but along the road to the area, huge swathes of forest had burned after trees were cut down, leaving behind what looked like "black holes" measuring 50 meters in diameter.

Several of those black holes littered the area.

Local residents said fires were set after trees were illegally felled. The ultimate aim is to convert the rainforest into farmland or ranches.

The Amazon rainforest is a complicated mix of private and state property, but some people claim land as their own after squatting on an area they have cleared.

With a land mass of about 5.5 million square kilometers, the Amazon spreads out over nine South American nations. About 60 percent of the rainforest is in Brazil.

While forest fires are common in the dry season between July and early October, this year has seen a larger than usual number of such fires, some of which are still burning.

According to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, between January and August, more than 43,000 square kilometers of the Amazon in Brazil alone went up in flames. That is an area larger than the southern Japanese island of Kyushu and already exceeds the scorched earth area in all of 2018.

DEVELOPMENT VS. PROTECTION

The destruction is the result of Amazon policies implemented by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro since he took office in January. Bolsonaro has focused on economic development rather than environmental protection as the path to economic recovery, but environmental groups contend that has led to rampant illegal logging and deliberately set fires.

Against the backdrop of global warming, the forest fires became an issue of international concern when French President Emmanuel Macron included the problem in the agenda for the Group of Seven summit held in France in August.

Faced with fierce criticism both domestically and from abroad, Bolsonaro in late August finally issued an order to ban controlled burning of the Amazon for a 60-day period.

But those who have made their livelihoods from slash-and-burn methods had mixed feelings about the edict.

Joaquim Silva, 54, established a cacao farm in the village of Itata located near the Bacaja area. He said the community would not have been able to survive without burning the forest to clear it for farms.

Itata was initially settled by gold miners, but the seams dried up about 20 years ago.

Now, most residents have started farms after burning and clearing the rainforest.

"I could not find a job if I went to the city, but here I can survive because I have my own field," Silva said.

METHOD OF DESTRUCTION

An official with a nongovernmental organization working on environmental protection based in Altamira explained the method behind the destruction of the Amazon.

Potential landowners as well as both domestic and foreign companies hire poor people recruited by brokers to work as lumberjacks to fell trees illegally for export as lumber. Lumber that is not suitable for exporting is also felled and sold locally.

Once the forest has been cleared, people deliberately set fire to what remains and the land is then used for ranches and farming after the hired hands are chased away.

"Unless this cycle is changed, there will be no end to illegal logging and forest fires," said Ana Laide Barbosa, 50, a member of that NGO.

A Brazilian government official in charge of environmental protection issues agreed to talk off the record about methods being used to avoid government inspectors keeping an eye out on the Amazon.

Satellites have been used to monitor the huge land mass taken up by the Amazon. But in recent years, illegal loggers have been cutting shorter trees that lie under the forest canopy. The tallest trees are only felled once a large chunk of land has been cleared.

It makes it harder for satellites to detect illegal logging operations. By the time inspectors realize what has happened, it is too late to do anything.

The U.S.-based Woods Hole Research Center which among other things studies the effects of reduced acreage of rainforests carried out a study on the impact of the Amazon forest fire on global warming.

It estimated that between January and August, the fires emitted between 140 million and 141 million tons of carbon dioxide. That is equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted over the course of a year by between 22.6 million and 30.6 million automobiles.

Through photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide in the air and store carbon in the trunk and branches, while releasing oxygen. While plants also release carbon dioxide, in mature rainforests like the Amazon, there is an equilibrium in the amount of carbon dioxide released and absorbed.

Akihiko Ito, a section head within the Center for Global Environmental Research at the National Institute for Environmental Studies, said, "The Amazon forest plays a key function of storing carbon. But the fires led to the sudden release of carbon that had been accumulated in the forest over the course of several centuries."

Pointing to the spread of forest fires in other rainforests around the world, Ito said, "If there is an increase in logging of forests and fires caused by humans, it will exceed the ability of forests to recover. Mature forests will not return."

(This article was compiled from reports by Gen Okada in Altamira, Brazil, and Akemi Kanda in Tokyo.)

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This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets, including The Asahi Shimbun, to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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