Forest Clearing Slows in the Amazon, but Wildfires Are on the Rise

A satellite image of smoke from fires in Bolivia and western Brazil, September 2022.

A satellite image of smoke from fires in Bolivia and western Brazil, September 2022. NASA

The last year has seen a dramatic drop in forest clearing in the Brazilian Amazon, but a concurrent rise in wildfires threatens to wipe out these gains, scientists warn.

Since taking power in January, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has stepped up law enforcement in the Amazon, curbing the loss of forest to ranchers, farmers, and miners. So far, deforestation is down 50 percent year on year. “It’s incredible, totally crazy,” Tasso Azevedo, a Brazilian analyst, recently told The Guardian. “This is on course to be the sharpest fall since 2005.”

At the same time, the Amazon is undergoing its worst drought in decades, setting the stage for more intense wildfires, particularly on degraded lands. In June, the number of fires reached its highest level since 2007.

In the past, a spike in the number of fires would have reflected a surge in forest clearing, with ranchers and farmers razing woods to create pasture or cropland. But this year has seen a “decoupling” of fire from deforestation, according to Gabriel de Oliveira of the University of South Alabama. Wildfires now account for a growing share of the burning.

De Oliveira is the lead author of a letter, penned by an international team of scientists, warning that as climate change intensifies drought, the Amazon is at risk of “runaway” wildfires. The letter, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, cautions that increasingly severe fires “threaten both the actual advances in forest protection made by Lula’s administration and pose a second threat — weakening the public’s perception of Lula’s commitment to protecting the region.”


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