Ethanol Fueling Amazon Fires?

Looking out of my window last week, I was dismayed to witness more than a dozen trees getting cut down. A basic equation was quickly calculated in my mind: more cars equals less trees. They were being removed to make room for additional car parking spaces.

Seeing this occur made me think of the many nations around the world that are really starting to 'mobilise'. Countries like China, India, and other regions in Asia and South America are exchanging their human and animal powered vehicles for motorised versions. As the infrastructure needed by globalised economics develops to allow for the mass transit of goods from the South to the North (more motorways, roads, highway services, centralised shopping centres, truck and car parks, etc.), nature is getting pushed further and further into the periphery of both existence and our consciousness.

The connection between our economic growth edging nature into permanent exile, however, is perhaps most profoundly observed in Brazil - where the demand for increased ethanol production, as well as other agricultural activities, may be literally financing the Amazon going up in smoke. While offset providers are making money from planting trees, are Brazilian farmers being paid to watch them burn - and all so we can 'drive sustainably'?

... In the state of Minas Gerais in September, more than 400 hundred points of fire were detected. For instance, almost 1,000 hectares were destroyed in less than two months at the Parque do Rola Moça.

Hundreds of miles away, fire crews fought to save a region of native forest in São Paulo as well as in the Parque Nacional da Ilha Grande, on the borders of the states of Parana and Mato Grosso. There, no rain has fallen for two months and not even helicopters are available to fight the 10 fires that have broken out there this year.

In the Pantanal wetlands in west-central Brazil, more than 150,000 hectares have burned without remedy. The inhabitants of nearby towns have had difficulty breathing because of the thick smoke.... But neither the drought nor the 20 percent humidity level in the Cerrado region have prevented farmers from setting fire to their properties. Fire was detected in a 2.2 hectare area at the National Park of Brasilia, almost certainly caused by a small farmer wanting to "clean" his property with fire.

Hampered by high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds, firemen and agents of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and the Natural Resources battled this fire for days in late August.

Setting fire to the land could be seen as a lack of environmental awareness. But fires also can be used as a way to increase agricultural land. In the Amazon state of Para, for instance, more than 700 hectares burned in September in the Carajás forest.

As a result of the practice of deliberately setting fires for land-clearing, very common in Brazil, areas of the region are still burning. Wild animals, plants, even cattle, all become ashes. Trees burn for days, blazing away in the wild. No fire planes nor fire brigades are available to fight fires in vast regions of the country.

On the other hand, the government of Luis Inácio da Silva is planning to offer incentives for sugar plantations in areas destroyed by fire.

Barely noticed by media, Francisco Anselmo de Barros died after setting himself alight in protest against ethanol
... In 2003, the highest deforestation rates ever were recorded in the region as the result of land clearing of the Amazon forest in favor of soy and cattle exports.The practices of large agricultural operations are then paralleled by small farmers, and there are more and more small farmers due to the increasing distribution of land in Amazonia by federal authorities. The subsequent burning may explain why deforestation rates in the region remain higher than those verified in the 1990s.

... Two years ago, in despair, Brazilian conservation activist Francisco Anselmo de Barros set himself on fire [also here] to protest the installation of 30 ethanol mills in the Pantanal. His death was poorly publicized by both national and international press.

As massive investments are being made to provide the world with ethanol, which is supposed to be a fuel that is ecologically superior to petroleum, and "burning" still is an accepted agricultural practice, Francisco' desperation seems justified to many activists. - ENS (emphasis and links added)

If the President of Brazil plans to subsidise ethanol production on land cleared by fire - he is essentially financing the destruction of the Amazon. In parallel thought, I'm reminded of the recent rush for the Arctic northwest passage. Besides seeking new trade routes, governments and industry are keen to exploit new oil and gas fields that may become accessible because of the arctic ice 'burn back'. I can almost hear the conversations in the board rooms - "well, if the ice has melted anyway, we might as well get in and take the spoils". The spoils, of course, generate even more greenhouse gases, and the downward spiral continues.

In similar fashion, these forest fires demonstrate a dangerous feedback loop in progress: industrialised society creates global warming, global warming creates droughts, droughts reduce the ability of trees to absorb CO2, droughts cause forests to dry out and become susceptible to fire (also here), fire causes the release of vast amounts of CO2 - speeding up global warming, and, unlike non-tropical fires - these fires create an even more fire-friendly environment. And, worse, Brazil is not the only place this is happening (Russia, Indonesia, and Africa for example). To reward farmers for directly contributing to this, by deliberately lighting fires for financial gain, is adding insult to injury.

The Amazon is one of the largest terrestrial carbon sinks, and losing that would greatly increase carbon emissions and contribute to warming the planet by perhaps a further 0.6 to 1.5'C over and above the warming already predicted by the IPCC for this century. Scientists are increasingly concerned about a likely threshold of deforestation beyond which the entire ecosystem could collapse and begin to die back. The reason is that much of the rainfall that sustains the forest is recycled; water is absorbed by the trees and returned to the atmosphere by evapo-transpiration. An estimated 7 trillion tonnes of water are recycled, which helps to cool the atmosphere immediately above the forests. The water cycle - which supports agriculture in the region and elsewhere - could break down, and that could affect the US grain belt. Permanent drought over the Amazon basin may seriously reduce the already diminishing global food supply, and at the same time send ever larger amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere in a catastrophic upward spiral of global warming that would despatch most species on earth to extinction, including our own. - I-SIS

Before widespread human settlement began to encroach on South America's Amazon forests, there was no such thing as an Amazon fire season. Now, fire may pose the biggest threat to the survival of the Amazon ecosystem. - NASA

Ethanol - the fuel of the future? What kind of future, exactly, is that? In the words of David Bowie, it seems we're putting out the fire, with gasoline.


Further Reading:

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  • Posted on Oct. 22, 2007. Listed in:

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