What are tropical forest fires?

Fires are not normal in rainforest ecosystems; these humid, closed-canopy forests normally have little flammable material. Globally, only around 4% of all forest fires have natural causes such as lightning or extreme weather events. In all other cases, humans are responsible, either by deliberately clearing the land or by carelessness.

Fires in tropical rainforests are linked to deforestation, with fire used to both clear and maintain the land to produce products such as beef, soy and palm oil as well as paper and pulp. Farmers clear primary forest by felling the vegetation and leaving it to dry, and then using fire to prepare the area for agriculture – this alters the soil properties and makes the land more fertile. Fires are also used to clear areas that have previously been cleared; cattle ranchers, for example, might use this technique to eradicate weeds from their pastures. These fires can escape their intended boundaries, burning into the surrounding forests.

In Brazil, many of the fires take place on land in both the Amazon and neighbouring Cerrado region, where commodities destined for large companies are produced. The Cerrado is a tropical savanna; a highly biodiverse region which is home to an estimated 5% of the world’s animals and plants. 

Brazil is the largest exporter of both beef and soybeans in the world, with China providing the largest market for soy. For example, China alone imports 48% of soy produced in the Northern Cerrado region of Matopiba and the EU is the second-largest importer from this region, accounting for 17%. The situation is less extreme with beef, where 80% of production is consumed domestically, although the country still shipped around US$7.5 billion of beef in 2019. 

In Brazil, soy traders Bunge and Cargill together had more fires in their vicinities than all the other major soy traders combined. Among slaughterhouses, JBS, Marfrig and Minerva accounted for 60% of fires in the potential buying zones of the top 10 companies. 

In Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, 1.6 million hectares of land was burned in 2019. Almost 15,000 fire alerts were raised in the concession areas of 10 palm oil companies in 2019.

Putting out fires is not an effective way to stop deliberate fires linked to deforestation; the root causes of deforestation itself need to be tackled. Governments, both domestic and international, play a role in the extent of forest fires each year through the policies and incentives they design. For companies, there are real reputational risks of their supply chains being linked to deforestation, and a failure to address these could result in difficulties accessing markets and finance as governments and investors wise up to the risks. 

Policy and company decisions can reduce the chances of forest fires by putting downwards pressure on products linked to deforestation. In 2019, Nestle stopped sourcing Brazilian soy from Cargill, while both fashion brand H&M and shoemakers VF Corp announced they would no longer source Brazilian leather. In 2020, institutional investors which manage a combined total of US$3.7 trillion in assets have called on the Brazilian government to halt deforestation and rein in deregulation of environmental protection policies. 

Brazil

In August 2019, Brazil suffered its worst fire season since 2010. Across the country, more than 30 million hectares of Brazilian savanna, agricultural land and forests were burned, representing 3.7% of Brazil’s landmass. The number of fires that occurred were nearly three times higher than in 2018 and the highest since 2010. For those fires that occurred in forested areas in 2019, research indicates a link to deforestation which estimates that more than 10,000 km squared of forest was lost between August 2018-19, making it the highest annual loss since 2009. In 2020, Brazil is on course for yet another intense fire season, with a 13-year high for the number of fire alerts recorded for June. 

The significant increase in forest fires that Brazil witnessed in 2019 came after President Jair Bolsonaro took office, following a campaign that was backed by agricultural businesses and farmers who wanted to see a weakening of the laws protecting the Amazon. Since then, Bolsonaro has reduced the budget of Ibama, Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, by 25%. 

The Brazilian government has also proposed law, PL 191/2020,  which could allow mining and agribusiness companies to operate in indigenous protected areas. The proposed MP910 bill threatens to increase land-grabbing by granting land tenure to so-called “settlers” who have cleared public lands for agricultural production or mining. There was strong national and international pressure against the bill and it did not pass. However, a subsequent and similar law has been proposed and the agri-business sympathising rural caucus has attempted to rush a vote through while the country deals with the coronavirus pandemic. 

Burnt deforested area near protected forest in Pará (Amazon).
Photo by Fernando Martinho, Repórter Brasil, 2019

Indonesia

Clearing land for palm oil and pulp plantations is a major cause of fires in Indonesia. Industrial‐scale plantations account for nearly half of Indonesia’s deforestation. In Indonesia, the government has primarily used moratoria on clearing areas of primary forest, but has failed to ensure that these are enforced and that conservation areas on existing plantations are adequately protected – consequently, more than a million hectares of protected forests burned between 2015 and 2018.

The government’s biofuel policies have increased demand for palm oil. In particular, the B30 programme, which began in January 2020 and aims to ensure that all biofuel products contain at least 30% palm oil, was hailed as a huge opportunity for growth by the Association of Indonesian Palm Oil Growers.

The Indonesian government has proposed an “Omnibus Law on Job Creation”. It contains more than 1,000 amendments to at least 79 existing laws, which would greatly weaken environmental regulations. The proposed law could potentially worsen forest fires, as criminal charges would no longer be applied to business people who commit environmental violations. Further measures to relax government protection of peatlands also increase the risk of fires. 

Children are forced to wear masks due to the toxic smoke from peat land fires. Kalimantan Tengah, Indonesia. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR, 2015.