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Amazon burning worst in memory, another casualty of El Nino

October 10, 1997

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ Charged with cracking down on illegal burning in the rain forest, Antonio Neri de Oliveira often has to pull his car to the side of the road until the smoke clears enough for him to see where he’s going.

``I don’t have any numbers to prove it, but just by looking I can see it’s the worst burning ever,″ he says.

While fires burning out of control in Indonesia have captured world attention in recent weeks, the Amazon rain forest also is burning _ suffering unusually dry conditions due to the disruptive El Nino weather phenomenon.

Residents of Manaus, a riverside city in the Amazon Basin, are used to the smoke that rolls in from fires burning in the rain forest all around them. But this year’s smoke is like nothing before.

Oliveira, an acting superintendent with Brazil’s Environmental Protection Agency in Manaus, 1,760 miles northwest of Rio, said most of the fires are started by landowners trying to dispose of debris left over from logging the forest’s tropical hard woods.

``To have an idea of how bad it is, a farmer was trying to burn off 12 acres and he ended up burning off 500 acres. It’s just that dry,″ Oliveira said by telephone.

And this is in Amazonas, a state where deforestation is less serious than elsewhere. The majority of smoke blows in from other states like Rodonia, Acre and Para.

There are no widescale efforts to extinguish the blazes because they mostly are cases of landowners burning on their own property, and they pose no danger of spreading to populated areas.

The huge clouds of choking smoke, however, already threaten health.

``In Manaus, which is one of the two largest cities in the Amazon, we have recorded a large cloud of smoke hovering over the city. Health officials have told us that they have an increase of 40 percent in respiratory disease,″ said Garo Batmanian, the World Wildlife Fund’s executive director for Brazil.

Elsewhere in the Amazon, ``airports in Porto Velho and Rio Branco have closed down between 20 and 30 times in the last month alone because of the smoke,″ he said.

President Clinton, who comes to Rio on Monday, is expected to present Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso with a report saying U.S. satellites have detected a 28 percent upswing in the number of burnings in the Amazon over the year before, the O Globo newspaper reported Wednesday.

Seasonal rain patterns over the Americas, as well as Southeast Asia, have been disrupted by El Nino, a cyclical rise in Pacific water temperatures that affects jet stream patterns and alters weather around the globe.

In Indonesia, fires set to clear farmland have burned out of control over the dry brush. A thick haze has spread over several countries, raising pollution levels to dangerous highs.

The current El Nino system has cut humidity levels over South America to around 43 percent _ the lowest since 1939. Normal humidity in the Amazon rain forest is around 95 percent.

The fires raging in Indonesia and Brazil threaten to speed global warming by spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, Francis Sullivan, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s forests for Life Campaign, told reporters in London on Wednesday.

``Two-thirds of the world’s forests have been lost forever,″ Sullivan said, adding that destructive logging and the subsequent land-clearing fires are accelerating the disappearance of the world’s remaining original forests.

A new survey released by the fund showed that of the 20 billion acres of forest existing in the world 8,000 years ago, only 7.5 billion acres remain.

More than half of the remaining original forests are concentrated in four countries: the United States, Russia, Indonesia and Brazil _ with forests in the latter two jeopardized by logging and fires.

The survey also showed that Brazil has the highest annual rate of forest loss in the world, but Brazil’s environmental officials disputed the conclusion.

``According to a U.N. study, Brazil is 68th place if you measure the deforestation rate in relation to size of forest that is still untouched,″ said Eduardo Martins, president of Brazil’s Environment Protection Agency.

Tropical forests are being destroyed at a rate of 42 million acres a year and there are similar losses across the temperate and northern forests of Canada, Europe, Russia and the United States, the study found.

The Asia Pacific region already has lost 88 percent of its original forest cover, and only 5 percent of the remaining forest area is protected, it said. Within the next 25 years, only 10 percent of the region’s original forests will be left, it predicted.

Worldwide, countries such as El Salvador, Ghana, Madagascar and Pakistan already have fallen below 10 percent, the study said.

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