Although Fires in the Amazon are not a natural occurrence, they have become an expected annual one, as humans set them to clear land for agricultural purposes. These unnatural fires are a symptom of deforestation, and pose a threat to local ecosystems and global climate goals. According to the Amazon Dashboard, 791,410 deforestation-related fires were detected across the Amazon in 2022, releasing significant carbon emissions and increasing the susceptibility of adjacent forests to degradation and destruction through fire.
A combination of dryness and fuel create the right conditions for an ignition to potentially spread. Initial, conservative estimates using monthly deforestation alerts show at least 11 thousand square kilometers of deforestation occurred in the Amazon in 2022, and official numbers are expected to be even higher after the data have been refined. A high concentration of fuel, created by clearing forest and leaving the vegetation to dry, accumulated along the southern edge of the Amazon. This overlapped with drought conditions in areas where the motivation to burn to clear land was high, resulting in fire.
maps by Greg Fiske
The Amazon is one of the world’s largest remaining carbon sinks. However, the emissions released annually from deforestation and fire threaten to tip it over the edge to being a net carbon source. In 2022 deforestation committed at least 104.9 million metric tons of carbon to being released into the atmosphere. As the country with the largest percentage of the Amazon within its territory, Brazil led emissions from deforestation in 2022, with over 80.3 million metric tons of carbon released (more than 3/4 of all carbon loss from deforestation in the Amazon). And of that, 81.6% (over 65 million metric tons) occurred in undesignated public forests and private lands.
map by Christina Shintani
In Brazil, these undesignated lands have uncertain protections. Some of them have been under consideration for designation as protected forest but, under Brazil’s previous presidential administration, no new protections were put forward. Without official designation, the enforcement of bans on burning and deforestation is much weaker. The outcome of 2022’s fire season highlights the importance of formal designation of these “forests in limbo” as a pathway for bringing down carbon emissions within the country.
Bolivia has seen a spike in deforestation in the past decade—nearly a third of all the deforestation of the past 50 years has occurred since 2011. Though undesignated lands saw the most total deforestation and consequent carbon loss (29,486 ha and approximately 2.3 million metric tons), Indigenous territories are particularly at risk from encroachment and illegal deforestation. Indigenous lands lost approximately 0.3 metric tons of carbon per hectare, compared to less than 0.2 in undesignated public forest and private lands in 2022, suggesting higher deforestation pressure. Supporting Indigenous sovereignty and stewardship of forests will be essential to helping guard against future carbon losses.