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Drought speeds worst Amazon burning in memory

October 29, 1997

MANAUS, Brazil (AP) _ This year’s burning season in the Amazon rain forest is so bad even a lake is on fire.

Two factors _ the worst drought in 25 years and government policy that encourages farmers to burn their land _ are speeding destruction of the world’s largest wilderness, not to mention choking inhabitants of the Amazon’s largest city with thick smoke.

At the Balbina dam reservoir, a record-low water level has exposed trees that were long submerged. For months they dried, then caught fire.

``Even the trees in the lake are burning. I’ve never seen anything like it,″ says Abner Brandao de Souza of Ibama, the government’s environmental protection agency.

A dense haze spews from the thousands of fires that have spread with ease over the parched Amazon, an area nearly two-thirds the size of the continental United States. The haze is choking the 1.1 million residents of the northern city of Manaus.

``You leave the house in the morning and you step into a thick haze,″ secretary Selena Oliveira says.

Fires at this time of year are common in heavily deforested Amazon states such as Mato Grosso and Para, where land is regularly burned for pasture. But the fires now are the worst in memory _ and the intensity is new here in Amazonas state, Brazil’s largest, where nearly 98 percent of the original forest canopy remains intact.

Worse, the fires have spread into virgin forest, where deep roots usually keep trees so moist they rarely burn. By most estimates, at least 10 percent of the 2 million square-mile Amazon has been destroyed.

There are no widescale efforts to stamp out the blazes because they mostly are cases of landowners burning on their own property. And there is nothing to stop the smoke.

Doctors say the number of people seeking treatment for respiratory ailments has jumped 30 percent since the smoke began smothering the city in mid-September.

Before scant showers fell in mid-October, the region had gone 70 days without rain.

The water level at Balbina dam, 100 miles north of Manaus, has plunged to the point that the city is forced to ration energy. Some neighborhoods have electricity for only six hours a day. Two babies died at a maternity ward that lacked a private generator to power their incubators.

El Nino is blamed for the drought: The cyclical phenomenon of warm Pacific Ocean currents is sending tropical storms north to desert regions such as Baja California and Arizona, and leaving normally moist areas thirsty.

Even more fires are burning in Southeast Asia, where El Nino also has caused drought, spreading dangerous, choking haze over Indonesia, Malaysia and other nations.

No one knows when El Nino will end _ and environmentalists fear next year may be worse.

``El Nino is just beginning. It should last long enough to make next year’s dry season longer and hotter,″ said Roberto Kishinani, director of Greenpeace in Brazil.

But another problem is strictly man-made _ Brazil’s policy of indirectly encouraging farmers to burn their land.

Chainsaw in hand, Idalino Cordeiro de Sousa, 34, clears the trees on the plot he received from a federal land-distribution institute called Incra. He says it’s the only way to obtain credit to buy an irrigation system.

``What else are we going to do?″ he says. ``Incra only gives loans for planting, and we can only plant if we cut.″

Incra says it may change that policy. Still, Brazilian law allows settlers to cut and burn up to eight acres without authorization from Ibama, the environmental protection agency. The government says small farmers account for 40 percent of Amazon deforestation.

Sousa will sell the valuable tropical wood and burn off what’s left. Thick scrub quickly replaces the forest, but the weak soil must periodically be fertilized with ashes, so burning becomes perennial.

It also makes burning easier. Because trees pump water vapor into the air through their leaves, fewer trees means drier air.

``One of the big fears in the future is that fires could take off into the primary forest, the way they’ve done in Indonesia,″ says Philip Fearnside, an American scientist at the National Institute for Amazon Research in Manaus.

Fearnside warns that the current ecological crisis in Indonesia is the face of things to come in the Amazon, where commercial loggers from Asia are moving in.

Ibama has just 60 poorly paid inspectors to cover the 600,000 square miles of Amazonas state, nearly as large as Alaska. They rely on help from the air force to locate the fires.

Amilton Casara, who heads Ibama in Amazonas, points out that the agency levied a record $276,000 in fines over 18 days in October. But such fines are rarely paid, and Casara had no figures for how much has been collected this year.

Fearnside remains skeptical about government promises to do more to discourage burning.

``The same sort of promises were made before the U.N. Earth Summit in 1992, and few of those promises were kept,″ he said.

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