Forget the Amazon Fires. State-Sanctioned Deforestation Is the Bigger Problem.

Environmental commons like the Amazon rain forest are vulnerable to shifts in the fickle winds of politics.


"Amazon burning at record rate" and variations of the same headline have run on CNN, The Hill, Time, UPI, and The Daily Beast during the last week. Reacting to the dire news reports, French President Emmanuel Macron declared, "The Amazon forest is a subject for the whole planet." He added, "We cannot allow you to destroy everything."

At the urging of Macron, the G7 countries meeting in Biarritz, France, offered a $20 million aid package to help fight the fires. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro initially rejected the aid, but now says that his country may accept it if Macron withdraws his "insults."

Celebrities also rushed to help. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio's Earth Alliance pledged $5 million to aid various Brazilian nonprofits associated with indigenous peoples in protecting the Amazon rain forest. Good for him. Helping indigenous folks to assert and protect their property rights is certainly a worthy goal.

So why are there so many fires burning now in the Amazon region? Chiefly, because local farmers and ranchers have set them to control pests and weeds and to encourage new growth, according to University of Maryland geographer Matthew Hansen. The increase in fires every August to October coincides with the season when farmers begin planting soybean and corn.

"The first thing is that they're not wildfires. Almost all of the fires have been set, so they're anthropogenic in origin. A minority are actually in the rainforest," explains Hansen, head of a NASA satellite project that tracks changes in earth's vegetation and forests in an interview in Maryland Today. "The vast majority look like maintenance fires set on already cleared land, which farmers might be burning to reduce vegetation cover in expanding land use, pastures in most cases."

Hansen adds, "Overall, fires inside standing rainforest are similar to recent years, the difference being that most have occurred in the last few weeks, leading to a concentrated spike in emissions."

Interestingly, the Global Fire Emissions Database, citing a satellite record that begins in 2012, "confirm[s] that the 2019 fire season has the highest fire count since 2012 across the Legal Amazon." The Legal Amazon consists of the nine states that essentially encompass Brazil's rain forests. According to records beginning in 1998, from Brazil's National Space Research Institute, the number of active fires (33,405) detected by satellites for the month of August are indeed more than double what they were in the previous year (15,001). On the other hand, the number of current fires is way down from earlier years. Since 1998, fires exceeded the current number in eight prior years, with 73,683 fires in the peak year of 2005.

Average year so far
Average fire year so far

The bottom line is that the current fires are not a significant threat to the Amazon rain forest, but state-sanctioned deforestation is.

Although some fires set by farmers do get out of hand and burn down nearby rain forests, the much bigger problem has been deforestation. The most recent peak year of 2004 saw the loss of 27,772 square kilometers (10,722 square miles) of rain forest. That's an area about the size of Maryland. As always, environmental commons like the Amazon rain forest are vulnerable to shifts in the fickle winds of politics.

For example, under the left-leaning administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003, the deforestation trends began to decline, reaching a record low in 2012 of 4,571 square kilometers (1,765 square miles). That's about the size of Delaware. During that period, the Brazilian government expanded protected areas and, importantly, stepped up enforcement against illegal deforestation.

80 percent still standing
Amazon deforestation still down by two-thirds

However, Brazil revised its Forest Code in 2012 such that it included an amnesty program for illegal deforestation on "small properties" that occurred before 2008. It also reduced forest restoration requirements. Some landowners near the rain forest evidently interpreted the amnesty as a green light for further land clearing. Consequently, under the administrations of Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer, deforestation rates began trending somewhat upward, rising to 7,000 square kilometers last year (3,050 square miles).

As I noted earlier, a 2012 study on forest transitions found, after parsing data from 52 developing countries between 1972 and 2003, that deforestation increases until average income levels reach about $3,100 per capita. Similarly, a 2016 study by French researchers focusing on Amazonian deforestation calculated that "the point when deforestation starts to decrease, corresponds to an income around 4,600 in [2005 U.S. dollars]." That's about $6,000 currently.

As it happens, Brazilian per capita incomes reached $3,600 per capita in 2004, and more than $7,000 per capita in 2007, coinciding with the beginning of downward trending deforestation rates.

However, a 2019 article by Colorado State University economist Edward Barbier specifically analyzed how institutions such as the rule of law and greater voice affect deforestation and reforestation trends in tropical countries. Not too surprisingly, the strengthening of the rule of law accelerates the speed with which an economy transitions from deforestation to forest recovery.

Somewhat paradoxically, Barbier finds that better voice and accountability diminishes rather than increases the likelihood of a forest transition in tropical countries. He observes that large state-funded settlement projects have been replaced by decentralized decision-making by farmers, land speculators, agri-business enterprises, and ranchers. These local private enterprises join together into an effective lobby.

"Evidence for some developing countries has shown that such lobbying efforts may enhance private agents' legal claims to forested land, encouraging land-use policies more favorable to their interests, and thus the profitability of their land clearing activities," suggests Barbier. "The result may well be further postponement of the transition to forest recovery in many tropical developing countries." According to media reports, this dynamic is happening in the Bolsonaro administration.

Amazon's future
Forest transition in most of the world

Sadly, crony capitalism can delay the forest transition, but in the long run, rising incomes and urbanization will strengthen the rule of law and deforestation of the Amazon rain forest will likely reverse, as it has already in most of the rest of the world.

NEXT: Trump Reportedly Told Subordinates To Break Laws in Order To Build His Border Wall Before 2020

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  1. “Celebrities also rushed to help. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s Earth Alliance pledged $5 million to aid various Brazilian nonprofits associated with indigenous peoples in protecting the Amazon rain forest.”

    I’m sure all the honest politicians in Brazil will see to it that all that money went to protecting the rain forests in their country and not in their Swiss bank accounts.

    1. I am making 10,000 Dollar at home own laptop .Just do work online 4 to 6 hour proparly . so i make my family happy and u can do

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    2. To be sure, much of that money does not make it to Switzerland, as it is invested in the local economy on Brazilian waxes and bikinis.

    3. Well, maybe AFTER it passes through those accounts.

    4. Once you pay the danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane.

      Could be a great source of funds for Brazil.

  2. This sounds like Climate Change Contrarianism to me.

    *gives Ron pointed look*

  3. Trump started up a trade war and amped it up… No end in sight.

    As a result, China doesn’t buy nearly as many soybeans from the USA (where it makes sense to grow), but buys it, instead, from Brazil… Where they set fires on a regular basis, to (among other things) grow soybeans.

    Unless you expect the likes of China to take trade hits from the likes of Trump, and NOT fire back at the USA in kind… An unreasonable expectation of anyone with an iota of pride… Then…

    We can thank Trump for the fires in Brazil, to a good extent!

    1. Idiotic reply. Maybe you should read the article.

      1. “The increase in fires every August to October coincides with the season when farmers begin planting soybean and corn.”

        If soy prices in Brazil were not jacked up artificially by Trump’s trade wars, there would be less need or desire for burning for keeping agricultural lands cleared of new (unwanted) growth. In the last decades, many former fields in the USA have reverted to wild growth. The same could be happening in Brazil now… Except for Trumpian trade wars. It’s that simple.

        1. I’m pretty sure they were doing this before Trump was even in office.

          But you want to blame Trump?

          1. Not for ALL of it, no. But for an INCREASE of it, yes! American farmers generally don’t need to conduct slash-and-burn, or sustain it, to grow soybeans. Brazilians have a much bigger incentive to do so. Economically, sensibly, AMERICAN farmers should be growing those soybeans!

            But Trump isn’t sensible… Since a lot of American farmers are married at the hip to the “R” party, Trump will just pay them welfare (out of YOUR tax-pocket!) to make up for the lost trade, instead! And hope that farmers are stupid enough to keep right on buying HIS bullshit!


            Trump is lying to farmers’ faces, and they’re finally getting angry about it

            It’s about time!!! Let us hope and pray that enough farmers can THINK for themselves!!!

            1. We get it, you’re uninformed.

            2. The world started in 2016 A.D.

              It is known.

        2. Brazil has used semi annual firest for soil fertilization for decades if not centuries. You are probably stupid enough to think this is a new thing. Most of the idiot celebrities were posting pictures decades years old. Dont be as stupid as a celebrity.

          1. Ignorant people have been killing witches for centuries. How DARE we question their wisdom? They made my calves catch diseases, my crops to fail, and my children to die! KILL the witches! It is NOT a NEW thing, this killing of witches!!! Do NOT be as stupid as the heathens and the unchurched!

    2. Wow, this is the most idiotic thing I’ve read not written by Old Mexican.

      1. Please read what I have written immediately above, and refute what I have written, instead of just calling my writings idiotic. Even a lazy pretend-thinker can insult others… THINKING requires work. Writing validly also requires honesty and (often) research. Are you capable of that?

        1. Nothing you wrote is of value because this is a very common agricultural process in Brazil and had been for a long fucking time. You’re just stupid enough to fall for the hype because you were ignorant to past practices prior to a celebrity telling you to be scared.

    3. Yet he has trade agreements elsewhere like Japan. Agreements that include agriculture. Good work with one sided propaganda.


        America needs Japan as an economic partner now more than ever

        “A U.S.-Japan free trade agreement. Talks will begin shortly, but they could be more divisive than unifying if the U.S. pushes for a greater opening of the agricultural market than Japan’s domestic politics can accept. A mutually beneficial deal would be a historic achievement and set the stage for similar arrangements elsewhere.”

        It has NOT happened yet!!! Given Trump’s desire to “win” at all costs… He can NOT “win” unless you “lose”… I would BET that He will continue in His ever-losing “zero sum games”, to our long-term detriment!

        “The Hill” is conservative, by the way, so don’t give us your usual bullshit… “If it ain’t Breitbart, they are commies anyway”!

  4. Please explain, in a way consistent with being a libertarian, how fires 1000s of miles away, in a different country, in a different hemisphere, are any of your business.

    1. So racist.

    2. Does libertarianism now forbid having opinions on things?

      1. One would hope it didnt include opinions based in ignorance, like most of the omg fires on brazil crowd seems be based in.

        1. Where’s the beef? Your opponents are ignorant… Ignorant of the Uber-Jesse’s Superiority? Got anything else?

          1. Full retard again. Strong play sqrsly. You’ve done nothing but verify your ignorance in every post. It’s been quite amusing.

            1. And you can’t or won’t refute the substance of what I write, because you’re an intellectual wussie poser!

    3. He’s making a point about private management of land vs. state-induced market distortions and their impacts on “the Commons.”

      Should he ignore a teachable moment because it’s happening “Somewhere Else?”

    4. it only matters in that governments think it is their business to interfere, making it our business since we always end up paying for it

  5. The vast majority look like maintenance fires set on already cleared land…

    It should be illegal to not yell fire when the crowd is doing virtue theater.

    1. That’s GOOD!

  6. I’m getting the pop-up vid in German; seems Brazil is telling Macron they don’t want his filthy Euros.

  7. I’ll donate to the charitable organizations, but only if Bolsonaro and Macron go on live television, and give each other wedgies.

    Vigorous, two-handed wedgies.

    1. I’ll match your donation if the loser of the wedgie battle is also treated to a swirly.

  8. Deforestation isnt an issue.

    There are more forests now than 100 years ago. Stop with the nonsense.

    1. Stop trying to minimize the reforestation crisis. We’re losing precious wastelands to the encroaching jungles, which aggravate Climate Change by turning reflective sand surfaces dark with heat-absorbing leaves.

    2. “While rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the air can be beneficial for plants, it is also the chief culprit of climate change. The gas, which traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere, has been increasing since the industrial age due to the burning of oil, gas, coal and wood for energy and is continuing to reach concentrations not seen in at least 500,000 years. The impacts of climate change include global warming, rising sea levels, melting glaciers and sea ice as well as more severe weather events.

      “The beneficial impacts of carbon dioxide on plants may also be limited, said co-author Dr. Philippe Ciais, associate director of the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences, Gif-suv-Yvette, France. “Studies have shown that plants acclimatize, or adjust, to rising carbon dioxide concentration and the fertilization effect diminishes over time.””

    3. Global warming also has contributed to some increase in worldwide forest canopies due to rising tree lines, but by far the greatest contribution is land use change, particularly afforestation in China and parts of Asia.

  9. 1987 called and wants her “Rain Forest in Crisis, World WIll Run Out of Oxygen” headlines back.

    But she also noted that she is fed up with hearing about it from post-Police Sting and said we can keep that washed-up hack. I didn’t have the heart to tell her his albums only got shittier.

  10. $20 million will buy enough mercenaries for a regime change, no?

    Are the people crying ‘we have to do something’ about another country not the same ones who whine and cry when Trump does something about another country?

  11. OK. I’ll forget the Amazon forest fires.

  12. For example, under the left-leaning administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003, the deforestation trends began to decline,

    Destroying an economy will generally lead to slower consumption of natural resources. Who would have thought.

    1. That’s weird, because the very worst environmental devastation always seems to happen because of governments, and usually leftist ones. See for example the Aral Sea under the Soviets or air pollution in China under the “People’s Republic.”

      1. I seem to recall there used to be a town named Chernobyl.

    2. “For example, under the left-leaning administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003, the deforestation trends began to decline,”

      Well, at least we know all that wood didn’t end up as toilet tissue.

    3. For example, under the left-leaning administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003, the deforestation trends began to decline,

      Weird how 2003 and 2004 look like two of the worst years for fires on that chart then isn’t it?

      Or that every single year of the man’s presidency was worse than it is today.

      But hey, fuck reality–we can haz feelz

  13. Whoa, I read the headline and thought it was about Android tablets, so confused for a second. Come to think of it, “Amazon Fire” was really bad branding for a technology product.

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