A Tale of Two Fires


Two fires were on the headlines not long ago, though they were taking place at countries one-third of the world circumference apart (about 14,000kms) – Brazil and Australia. And one architect of those, who was given the Title of “Captain Chain-Saw” as the destroyer of the Amazon rainforest by the big media houses like Telegraph (of the UK) or Bloomberg (of the USA) – Mr Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, is the Chief Guest in India’s Republic Day Celebration this year (at the invite of other fire-stained leaders) [[1]]!

It may sound puzzling – how cutting down of forests, particularly rainforests, may cause forest fire blazing over thousands of hectares. But an easy explanation, and a correct one, was given by the BBC [[2]] which is particularly valid for this year (if we take Bengali year from mid-April 2019 to mid -April 2020). Generally, forest fires start with friction of dry wood or lightning or such natural events, but this year Brazil forest fires started from those ‘clearing’ the forest by cutting logs then then putting fires to the residues to make land for corps or grazing. As such deforestation brings less rainfall which make forests drier and makes it more prone to fire.  The Rainforest Alliance explained [[3]]: “The vast majority of the fires in the Amazon and Indonesia are manmade and intentional—the result of illegal deforestation and clearing of farmland. Wildfires are in fact quite rare in tropical rainforests, due to the high humidity. Even in the dry season, the flora is usually too wet for lightning to spark a blaze or for accidental fires (from a burning campfire or cigarette) to take hold.

“Agribusinesses clear vast stretches of pristine, untouched forest to make room for cattle pasture (in Brazil) and cropland (soy in Brazil, palm oil in Indonesia). The cheapest and quickest way to do this in such humid conditions is to cut down the trees and underbrush with chainsaws, let them dry out for a month, and get rid of the debris by burning it.

“The damage does not stop there. Large-scale clearing disrupts the very processes that give the rainforest its name—the ability to absorb, store, and recycle water as rainfall. As the soil dries out and tree cover is lost, the forest shifts from being fire-resistant to fire-prone. “This is one of the most traumatic things you can do to an ecosystem,” explained Nigel Sizer, the Rainforest Alliance’s chief program officer. The thin-barked trees of the rainforest have no natural resilience to fire, so the flames simply consume everything in their path.”

Sometimes, it may seem to be just a regularization of what was already there. Bolsonaro gave legal documents to about 800,000 farmers already doing agriculture illegally in the forest areas, and the president was so keen in this that he fired the ex-chief of land reforms for opposing it [see note [4]]. Bolsonaro’s efforts of clipping down the world’s lungs, the biggest rainforest affecting the biggest drainage system on the earth gave some immediate result which perhaps were already in the making: (i) Brazil beat India or is poised to beat India to become the world’s biggest exporter of beef in the world in 2019-2020 [[5]]. Now 8.7% of Brazil’s GDP comes solely from Beef export [[6]] and only in 4 years, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 Beef exports volume in the GDP was less than 8%. So, how important is Beef in Brazil’s economy, and also in Amazon deforestation! (ii) Even before Bolsonaro assumed power Brazil became world’s largest Soy producer beating the USA [[7]] in 2018. What Bolsonaro added to it was extraordinary: “In surprise move, Brazil has removed restrictions on Amazon sugarcane production. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has signed a decree revoking a zoning regulation for the sugarcane industry, effectively allowing for cultivation of the crop in the Amazon and other areas of primary forest. The measure is controversial because it wasn’t requested by the industry, which, under the previous regulation, was permitted to expand onto degraded land and cattle pasture covering six times the area currently planted with sugarcane.” Naira Hofmeister writes in Mongabay on 13 Nov 2019 [[8]]. Now business person in Brazil knows that they can do whatever they want to Amazon and govt. de facto legalised deforestation [[9]]. Brazil produces sugarcane to make sugar, it is second only after India in worlds sugar production, but Brazil is world’s topmost bio-ethanol fuel producer. The fertilised and well-irrigated sugar-croplands are used to feed cars not people. By the way, cattle breeding is a source of Methane production which is produced in cow’s or any ruminant animal’s alimentary system. “Holstein produced more methane (299.3 g/day) than the Crossbred (264.2 g/day). Lactating cows produced more methane (353.8 g/day) than dry cows (268.8 g/day) and heifers (222.6 g/day). Holstein, with greater milk production potential, produced less CH4 per unit of dry matter intake (19.1 g/kg) than the Crossbred (22.0 g/kg). Methane emission by heifers grazing fertilized pasture (intensive system) was 222.6 g/day, greater than that of heifers on unfertilized pasture (179.2 g/day). Methane emission varied as function of animal category and management intensity of production system.” says a 2009 study conducted in south-east Brazil [[10]]. Cattles account for about or more than a quarter of Methane emission from agricultural sector now.

But blaming only Bolsonaro for Amazon devastation is not fair, though Bolsonaro is doing it brazenly.

We can see Brazil’s deforestation in pre-Bolsonaro days from Food and Agricultural Organisation (Rome) statistics as reproduced in the Wikipedia. If that is plotted, we get a graph like below:

brazil deforestation 2

Source: Wikipedia – Deforestation in Brazil [[11]]

Now, from the very start of 2003 to very end of 2010, for this eight years Lula Da Silva of PT, the left party, was I power – there we see that after a high spike in 2004 deforestation was in down curve. Next six years, till 31 Aug 2016 was also PT regime under Dilma Rousseff when deforestation after some ups and downs were showing an increasing tendency. In PT’s 16 years term a total of 161,485 sq. km. of forest was destroyed! That is more than 10000 sq. km/year. Anyway, during Bolsanoro period it is showing tendency to increase not only by some data but also by the attitude and statements of the president.

Apart form deforestation due to land clearing for grazing and agriculture there is another very important reason for deforestation. That is a point where many environmentalists also show dilemma – hydropower generation. Hydel is a great shift away from power generation by fossil fuel burning, but at the same time it is non-renewable as scientists are saying recently. (See the undamming process or dam destruction process that have started in the USA, there is a beautiful book on this: Economics of River Flows: Lessons from Dam Removals in America edited by Bharat Jhunjhunwala [[12]]). Hydel power generation causes a lot of deforestation in the river valleys. This in turn reduces rainfall and thus a vicious cycle opens up.  Many hydel plant proposals were chalked in the so-called left regime. In 2010 we heard: “Brazil to build controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in Amazon rainforest. According to the Brazilian energy ministry the dam, expected to start production in 2015, will cost around R$20bn (£6.8bn) and will eventually produce around 11GW of electricity.” [[13]]  In 2013 the National Geographic wrote the same story but in detail: “You’ve heard of king coal? Well, in Brazil, hydropower is king. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a whopping 79 percent of Brazil’s electricity came from hydropower in 2010. (In the U.S. that drops to about 7 percent.)

“But Brazil wants even more hydropower, which brings us to the next chapter in our story.

“Way Down Upon the Xingu River

“You can find the Xingu River on a map in the northeastern corner of Brazil. It runs south to north for about 1,200 miles and drains into the Amazon River. (See related pictures: “A River People Awaits an Amazon Dam.”)

“Brazil has big plans for the Xingu River — more specifically, on the Xingu about 100 miles south of where it meets up with the Amazon. That is the construction site of the Belo Monte Dam, slated to be the third largest hydropower facility in the world behind China’s Three Gorges Dam and the Itaipu Dam operated jointly by Brazil and Paraguay. When completed, the Belo Monte Dam will have the capacity to produce up to 11 million kilowatts.” [[14]] In 2016 The Guardian alerted: “Brazil’s giant dams risk destroying heart of the Amazon, says Greenpeace. Construction of 40 dams in the Tapajós river basin would severely affect indigenous people and is not justifiable economically, says new report” [[15]] in that same year Amazon chiefs, Leaders of the Munduruku people, visited England and also went to British Museum as part of dam-building protest [[16]].  They were afraid that their centuries old civilisation depending on fishing and agriculture will be destroyed by dam building.

Anyway, now Captain Chain-Saw will observe the Republic Day march in Delhi as Chief guest.

Another country with 14 hours difference (if not crossed the international date line, Brasilia, GMT–3 to Canberra GMT+11) is Australia which was recently in news for bushfires. Last Nov 12, Greater Sydney got the highest fire warning: Catastrophic. This means – there should be no open fire henceforth for any reason whatsoever in this region. This Catastrophic signal was first started in 2009. Wikipedia informs from various sources that: As of 14 January 2020, bush and scrub fires this season have burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres; 186,000 square kilometres; 72,000 square miles), destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including approximately 2,683 homes) and killed at least 34 people. An estimated one billion animals were also killed and some endangered species may be driven to extinction [[17]].

Australia govt. may show some ‘natural’ reasons behind this year’s fire. This year (2019-2020) saw an unprecedented positive Indian Ocean Dipole and Australian side got big drought and high temperature; highest summer temperature (in between 2019 Oct – 2020 till now) reached 41.9°C (120°F) in 18 Dec. On Oct 7 also temp was +2°C above normal. Whereas the opposite side of the Indian ocean, in Africa, they saw 300% more rain and more than 300 died there due to floods. [[18]] But govt of Australia cannot blame Indian Ocean Dipole and wash off their hands. From a 2014 report we know that in the last 100 years (till then) Australia’s average temperature increased by 1°C and it was suggested that in the next 16 years temperature would increase by 1.5°C more. How rainfall is decreasing, heat wave and night temperature is increasing in Australia can be had of from Australia govt reports [see these govt reports [19]].

One of the biggest reasons of Australia’s warming is deforestation due to coal mining by open cut mines. A south African report analysed how open cut mines endanger forests [[20]]. The Guardian warned in 2018 that: ‘Global deforestation hotspot’: 3 million hectares of Australian forest to be lost in 15 years [[21]]. Australia is world’s fourth largest coal producer, after China, India and the USA, but Australia is the largest exporter of coal and also liquified natural gas in the world. Australia once had carbon taxes purportedly for discouraging carbon emission and it did contribute to emission reduction to some extent [[22]], but when the results were just showing, in 2014, Australia repealed the carbon tax and also emission trading! [[23]] (Though emission trading is a bad business and unethical too – but hat is a separate discussion.)

Australia is the driest continent. And if the govt pursues more mining, more industrialisation, more energy use line, Australia will be more prone to fire. Situation is such that climate activist Greta Thunberg requested German engineering group Siemens AG to review its role in helping to develop a coal mine project in Australia for thermal-power. “The Australian government last year approved the construction of a new coal mine in Queensland by Adani that is expected to produce 8-10 million tonnes of thermal coal a year.” [[24]] But Siemens said that they will honour their agreement as because this project is not an environmental threat as per reports received by them. [[25]] A newspaper report says how this is harmful both for Australia and India: “An estimated 500 tankers a year will travel back and forth between Australia and India in the future. Fully loaded with coal, they’ll sail right through the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the world, which is already under threat. And that’s just one reason why environmental activists are outraged by Indian Adani Group’s plans for mining coal. Once completed, its Carmichael mine in the northeastern Australian state of Queensland will be one of the largest in the world, emitting 705 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere each year, according to climate protection alliance Fridays for Future.” [[26]] Adani is glad that Indian import of Australian coal (from Adani mines) will increase and Adsani is all set to become India’s largest thermal power player. [[27]]

Indians have lot to worry from these examples. In our country too open cut coal mines have become à la mode. Also, there are more and more hydel projects with large dams Monocropping or single crop agriculture in forest land also endangers forests. Afforestation measures as they are taken now is not an antidote to deforestation, as forests are spontaneous creations which includes not only trees, but herbs, shrubs, undergrowth and much more diversity. They are more resilient if not disturbed by deforestation. Sadly, our govt is not seen to be acting properly taking all these in cognizance. Rather. It did the opposite by inviting Jair Bolsonaro as the Chief Guest.  A part of the media is rejoicing and advising govt to make more agreements with Brazil for fossil fuel import. (for example: India’s oil ministry wants IOC, other state refiners to buy oil from Brazil. India’s oil ministry source says purchase from Brazil to help diversify crude sources. [[28]]) Brazil wants India to import more chicken from Brazil diluting import duty and also wants India to make more ethanol from sugarcane with Brazilian know how – so that here also agricultural land can be used to feed cars.  Indians have many reasons to protest Bolsonaro’s visit to India and that too as a chief guest in Republic Day ceremony.

[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/12/02/brazil-criminal-loggers-heed-call-captain-chainsaw-jair-bolsonaro/ or https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-06/brazilian-amazon-destruction-surges-almost-fourfold-in-july or https://www.news.com.au/world/south-america/brazils-president-captain-chainsaw-causes-outrage-as-amazon-burns/news-story/5eaf35dac2e8f99d7b827136f38a1536

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49971563

[3] Section: Slash-and-Burn Deforestation in https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/articles/why-our-forests-are-burning

[4]  The Brazilian president fired the head of INCRA for being against the government’s plan to facilitate the regularization process of about 750,000 land deads by the end of the year. On Oct. 1, army general João Carlos de Jesus Corrêa was discharged as the head of the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), a position he held since February of this year. While the Brazilian government did not immediately confirm the decision, Corrêa told local magazine Veja: “I’m leaving with the peace of mind of having done an excellent job with my team.” https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/democraciaabierta/bolsonaro-legaliza-o-desmatamento-da-amazonia-en/

[5] https://beef2live.com/story-world-beef-exports-ranking-countries-0-106903

[6] http://www.brazilianbeef.org.br/download/sumarioingles2019.pdf

[7] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-soy-usa/brazil-to-pass-u-s-as-worlds-largest-soy-producer-in-2018-idUSKBN1IC2IW

[8] https://news.mongabay.com/2019/11/in-a-surprise-move-even-to-the-sugarcane-industry-president-bolsonaro-has-removed-restrictions-on-sugarcane-production-in-the-brazilian-amazon-experts-expect-land-speculators-to-benefit/

[9] Ibid 4

[10] Emissão de metano ruminal por bovinos leiteiros no sudeste do Brasil by Márcio dos Santos Pedreira et al http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0103-90162009000600004

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deforestation_in_Brazil

[12] Economics of River Flows: Lessons from Dam Removals in America edited by Bharat Jhunjhunwala https://www.amazon.in/Economics-River-Lessons-Removals-America/dp/8178358166

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/feb/02/brazil-amazon-rainforest-hydroelectric-dam

[14] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/great-energy-challenge/2013/forests-fuel-hydropower/

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/jun/15/brazil-giant-hydropower-dams-risk-destroying-amazon-greenpeace-tapajos-river

[16] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/16/amazon-chiefs-visit-british-museum-as-part-of-dam-building-protest

[17] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019%E2%80%9320_Australian_bushfire_season

[18] See http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/current/annual/aus/ then https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-50980386 and also https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-50602971

[19] http://www.bom.gov.au/state-of-the-climate/2014/ and https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/OandA/Areas/Assessing-our-climate/State-of-the-Climate-2018/Australias-changing-climate

[20] https://www.environment.co.za/mining/effects-of-mining.html

[21] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/05/global-deforestation-hotspot-3m-hectares-of-australian-forest-to-be-lost-in-15-years

[22] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/24/australia-records-biggest-emissions-drop-in-a-decade-as-carbon-tax-kicks-in

[23] https://www.cnbc.com/2014/07/17/australia-drops-carbon-tax-emissions-trading-plans.html

[24] https://www.livemint.com/news/india/greta-thunberg-urges-siemens-to-review-adani-s-australia-coal-project-11578750021478.html

[25] https://www.livemint.com/companies/news/siemens-snubs-greta-thunberg-s-appeal-says-will-honor-adani-coal-mine-contract-11578874542177.html

[26] https://www.dw.com/en/adanis-coal-mine-plans-and-why-coal-is-still-so-lucrative/a-52025626

[27] https://www.livemint.com/companies/news/adani-expects-india-coal-imports-to-hit-record-1557467616076.html

[28] https://energy.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/oil-and-gas/indias-oil-ministry-wants-ioc-other-state-refiners-to-buy-oil-from-brazil/73552325

Sandeep Banerjee is an activist who writes on political and socioeconomic issues and also on environmental issues. Some of his articles are published in Frontier Weekly. He lives in West Bengal, India. Presently he is a research worker. He can be reached at [email protected]




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