[CURITIBA, BRAZIL] Carbon dioxide emissions from an unexpected rise in the number of forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon may be cancelling out emission reductions from efforts to preserve rainforests.
Researchers analysed satellite data on deforestation and fires from the region between 1998 and 2007 and found that fires increased in 59 per cent of the areas where deforestation rates were reduced.
In a study published in Science last week (4 June), they warn that reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) — a climate change mitigation strategy that uses financial incentives to reduce carbon emissions from tropical deforestation and forest degradation — could fail unless people living off the forest adopt an organised fire policy.
"We were surprised to find this backward pattern," Luiz Aragão — a researcher at the UK-based University of Exeter, who co-authored the study — told SciDev.Net.
All other studies show that fires go down as deforestation levels are reduced, he said, but a combination of factors could have driven the increase.
"Even though there is a decrease in deforestation rates, the total amount of deforested areas is always increasing, even if it's at a slower pace," said Aragão. "This generates more forest edges — the intersection between agriculture land and the forest — and increases fragmentation. Forest edges and fragments, and secondary forests, are all susceptible to fire."
Further, slashing and burning of secondary forests that grow in abandoned agricultural areas are not recorded by Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, which monitors only deforestation of primary forests.
There is a pressing need now for policymakers to consider the threat to forests posed by fire, said the researchers. "The success of reductions in carbon emissions by avoiding deforestation depends on harmonising REDD with policies to limit fire incidence not only in the Brazilian Amazon but also in other rainforest nations in South America, Africa and Asia," they state.
"We need to improve monitoring systems to quantify all the components — deforestation, degradation and carbon emission — from forest fires," said Aragão. But implementing monitoring systems will be difficult in many countries, which will have to invest further in training, he said.
"This study highlights the role of fire in REDD, an aspect of emissions reduction that has seen relatively little attention to date," Chris Justice, a geography professor at the University of Maryland, United States, told SciDev.Net.
Paulo Moutinho, executive director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) added: "There is no way to imagine any REDD related action without reducing carbon emission from forest degradation. And that includes avoiding fires, one of the most evident ways to degrade forests."
Science doi 10.1126 (2010)