Brazil Amazon Rainforest Fires Highlight Need for Climate Action

Brazil’s Amazon rainforest experienced record fires in early 2024, with budget cuts hindering firefighting and prevention efforts.

Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has seen its most extensive fires on record in the first four months of 2024, with environmental workers partly blaming reduced government funding for firefighting efforts. The environmental workers’ union, Ascema, voiced concerns on Monday about the impact of budget cuts on the effectiveness of fire prevention and mitigation measures.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has made the protection of the Amazon a cornerstone of his climate policy, faces a significant challenge as the fires rage. The Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world, plays a critical role in mitigating global warming by absorbing vast amounts of greenhouse gases.

A severe drought, exacerbated by the El Niño climate phenomenon and ongoing global warming, has created dry conditions that have fueled the fires this year. According to Brazil’s space research agency, Inpe, over 12,000 square kilometers (4,633 square miles) of the rainforest burned from January to April. This area, larger than Qatar and nearly the size of Connecticut, marks the highest burn rate in over two decades of recorded data.

Fires in the Amazon are predominantly human-caused, often set to clear land for agricultural purposes. The environmental workers’ union Ascema pointed to significant budget cuts as a contributing factor. The union highlighted that the budget for the environmental agency Ibama to combat fires this year is 24% lower than in 2023.

In response to these accusations, Brazil’s environment ministry stated that the Amazon Fund, which relies on donations from foreign governments, allocated 405 million reais ($79.4 million) for state-level firefighting efforts under Lula’s administration, which began in 2023. The federal government deployed approximately 380 firefighters to Roraima, the northern Amazon state hardest hit by the fires. These efforts were aimed at combating the fires exacerbated by the severe drought conditions.

Despite these measures, the environment ministry did not address the specific concerns regarding the cuts to Ibama’s firefighting budget. Requests for comments from Ibama went unanswered. Since January, Ibama agents have suspended field operations due to ongoing negotiations with the federal government over better pay and working conditions.

Ascema has rejected the latest government proposals, demanding significant salary increases after more than a decade of minimal raises and reduced staffing. The union warns that without full engagement from environmental workers, the country could face an unprecedented catastrophe.

“The government needs to understand that without total engagement from environmental workers, the situation foreseen for this year is unprecedented catastrophe,” said Ascema President Cleberson Zavaski.

Fire researcher Manoela Machado from the Woodwell Climate Research Center emphasized the importance of preventive measures. “Prevention efforts, such as raising awareness about ignitions, creating firebreaks in strategic areas, and conducting prescribed burns, depend on employing people with stable conditions,” she said. “These measures will influence the severity of the fire crisis when the dry conditions allow fires to spread.”

While the record area burned during the first four months of the year is alarming, it is likely to be surpassed during the peak dry season from August to November. During this period, an area of similar size can burn in just one month.

As the international community watches closely, President Lula’s ability to address these fires effectively will be a critical test of his administration’s commitment to environmental protection and climate leadership. The situation underscores the urgent need for robust funding and strategic planning to safeguard the Brazil Amazon rainforest and its vital role in combating global climate change.