Hurricane season is upon us, so the media hysteria surrounding fires in the Amazon has moved off the front page. The world is still coming to an end in a decade or so, according to some environmentalists. But now it’s warming seas rather than jungle infernos that we need to obsess about.
This apocalyptic flavor-of-the-month routine is regrettable, and not only because so many untruths are never corrected. It also wastes an opportunity for learning. In this case, early evidence suggests it’s worth exploring the link between private property rights and responsible conservation in the Amazon-quite the opposite of what you might have gleaned from most press reports.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is a polarizing figure, and many in the media don’t like him. Fair enough. But Brazil is a democracy, and after some 13 years of Workers’ Party socialism and corruption, last year Brazilians asked for a change. Bolsonaro derangement syndrome doesn’t hold the president accountable. It only deepens the visceral Brazilian divide.
Mr. Bolsonaro has shown disdain for policies aimed at walling off the Amazon from humans. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that much of the data deployed by journalists to tell the story of the fires have been cherry-picked to make him look like an environmental villain. “Satellite data shows Amazon rainforest burning at record rates,” United Press International shouted on Aug. 21. But the story seems to have made selective use of data collected daily by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research.
As of Saturday the data show that there have been 69,565 fires in Brazil’s “legal Amazon”-which includes savanna-so far this year, up 59% from the like period last year. But the number of fires during the like period in each year from 2002-07 was significantly higher. For 2010, the last year of left-wing President Lula da Silva ’s eight years in office, the comparable number is 109,940 fires, a jump of 261% from the preceding year. The media never blinked. In fact, on Dec. 1, 2010, despite what had occurred in fire season, the BBC reported “Brazil: Amazon deforestation falls to new low.”
The institute counted 97,972 fires in all of Brazil this year-not only the Amazon-up 51% from the preceding year. That sounds dire, but in 2010 there were 158,258 fires during the like period, an increase of 195% from 2009.
Photos of charred trees hype the media spin. Yet an Aug. 24 New York Times report on “scientists studying satellite image data” found that “most of the fires are burning on agricultural land where the forest had already been cleared” and “were likely set by farmers preparing land for the planting season.”
NASA’s Earth Observatory website says fire in the Amazon “typically increases due to the arrival of the dry season. Many people use fire to maintain farmland and pastures or to clear land for other purposes.” There also has been drought in the south of the continent, raising fire hazards there.
Yet it isn’t clear that the Amazon is experiencing anything historic, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory: “As of August 16, 2019, an analysis of NASA satellite data indicated that total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years . . . Though activity appears to be above average in the states of Amazonas and Rondônia, it has so far appeared below average in Mato Grosso and Pará, according to estimates from the Global Fire Emissions Database, a research project that compiles and analyzes NASA data.” The page was updated Aug. 22. In a separate post the site said the fire activity is the highest since 2010.
In August 2016 Reuters reported on a study by the nonprofit Climate Policy Initiative that linked the absence of land titles in the Amazon to conflict and environmental degradation. “Without clear titles proving land ownership, farmers have less incentive to make new investments, improve productivity or protect the environment, said the CPI, a San Francisco-based group with operations in Rio de Janeiro,” Reuters wrote.
No one knows exactly how much of the actual forest destruction has been on land that isn’t private property. But it may be a lot.
Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment compiles fire data, largely from the states. The ministry told me last week that from these data it estimates that 51% of the fires occurred on property with no title and no owner. Another 14% occurred on land that has been “donated” to the landless peasant movement known by the initials MST, and 13% were in conservation areas or on indigenous lands. Only 22% of the fires occurred on registered property.
This suggests that much of the destruction took place where there was no economic incentive to protect the forest because there is no private ownership. For those who actually care about the Amazon and aren’t simply trying to score points against Mr. Bolsonaro, this is a trail worth following.
By: Mary Anastasia O’Grady
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