TAPAJÓS NATIONAL FOREST, Brazil — “Fire is becoming a dangerous thing,” says Pedro Pantoja, better known as Seu Pedrinho. “If there were another way for folks to plant their crops without burning, all the better.”
At 69, Seu Pedrinho is one of the oldest residents of the riverside community of Jamaraquá in Tapajós National Forest, in Brazil’s Pará state. Here, each farmer has their own small plot to grow cassava and a specific schedule for when they may clear a new area by burning to prepare for the next season’s planting. “In October or November, closer to the rainy season, people get together to organize the burning,” Seu Pedrinho says.
Tapajós National Forest, named after the river that’s one of the main tributaries of the Amazon, is among the most visited conservation units in northern Brazil, and one of the most studied in the Amazon. The Tapajós River Basin is one of the largest and most scenic in the entire Amazon, known for its white-sand beaches. The river passes through the world-famous tourist district of Alter do Chão in the city of Santarém, where air-conditioned inns with restaurants specializing in local cuisine have English-language menus. The national forest itself is home to more than 4,000 people spread across 23 communities and three Indigenous villages, where the tourism is rustic and the river is the center of community life.
In Jamaraquá, one of the national forest’s largest communities, the tourism industry is just getting started but is already one of the main sources of employment and income — alongside the cultivation of rubber and fruit trees — for the 40 families who live here. The small plots that each family farms are cleared through the use of fire, given the lack here — as in much of the Amazon — of mechanized methods such as the use of tractors. From the cassava they grow, the residents make flour for their own consumption and sell the surplus at the family farmers’ market in Santarém. For these riverside communities, cassava and fire have been a part of life for generations.
Seu Pedrinho says that community members are aware there are other farming techniques that don’t require burning the land, such as agroforestry or the use of tractors to till the soil. But for those, they would have to rely on external aid and expertise. “We don’t have technical support. If you want to go on planting cassava, you need to clear the bush,” he says.
The bush, in this case, is what the locals refer to as capoeira, a Tupi word referring to low-lying secondary vegetation. After harvesting the cassava, the farmers let the land rest for years, while cultivating an area next to it. During the fallow period, the vegetation in that area regenerates and contributes to environmental services, such as maintaining biodiversity, filtering water and preventing soil erosion. When the time comes to reuse the fallow land, Seu Pedrinho cuts down the capoeira and burns the biomass to fertilize the land with the nutrient-rich ashes.
The agricultural management fire is characterized by fires in areas previously deforested and now given over for farming and ranching, like clearing large pastures, and also when smallholders like Seu Pedrinho, Indigenous peoples and traditional communities use fire in subsistence agriculture. Scientists classify two other main forms of burning in the Amazon: deforestation fires, which are set to clear away vegetation after forest clearing, an activity that is almost always illegal in the Amazon; and wildfires, caused when any of the other types of fires spread into standing forest.
“Fire stewardship in the Amazon requires an understanding of what is burning, which factors influence the extent and spreading of forest fires, and how different aspects combine to make forests more flammable,” says Jos Barlow, a researcher at Lancaster University in the U.K., who has studied the Amazon for the past two decades.
This differentiation is important for several reasons. One of them lies in the fact that officials in the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro have repeatedly blamed the spread of wildfires on the traditional use of fire by small farmers in rural communities. But the data don’t support this narrative: According to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), 22% of fire hotspots recorded in 2019 were on rural properties considered medium or large (greater than 440 hectares or 1,090 acres), while 9% occurred on small farms of less than 440 hectares (the rest of the hotspots were distributed among other land-use categories). In the first half of this year, medium and large properties alone accounted for half of all hotspots in the Amazon.
Complementary analyses connect the burning even more directly to deforestation. A new fire-mapping tool developed by NASA shows that 54% of the fires this year in the Amazon were caused by deforestation. This suggests the most effective way to fight fire in the region would be to drastically reduce deforestation. “If there is no ignition source, there is no way for the fire to escape to the standing forest,” says Erika Berenguer, a Brazilian biologist at Oxford and Lancaster universities.
An ancient farming method
The practice of subsistence farming using burning is one that goes back to the Indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon, and that’s carried out today in much the same way by their descendants. Fire has long been a part of their creation myths, featured in rites of passage and celebrations, and for obtaining materials for housing.
From its role in shaping the cultural identity of different peoples to its use as a tool for subsistence agriculture, fire is indispensable in the daily lives of traditional communities. But the ancient way of life in rural Amazonia is beginning to feel the impacts of the climate crisis more directly — caused primarily by the industrialized portion of humanity. The climate has changed to such an extent that the Amazon of today, drier and more flammable, seems incompatible with traditional local customs. “In the old days,” Seu Pedrinho says, “work in the fields went from 7 a.m. until noon, but today you can’t even stand being out there at 10 a.m. It’s just too hot.”
In the fields, small farmers have techniques to prevent their fires from spreading beyond their plots. Seu Pedrinho says his family and neighbors get together to make a firebreak, the process of clearing vegetation around the land to keep flammable material out of the reach of the flames. These breaks are up to 3 meters (10 feet) wide and at a distance of 10 meters (33 feet) from the cropland, allowing community members to control the brushfire and prevent it from turning into a forest fire.
They take other precautions too, like starting the burn during the coolest time of the day, against the wind, and moving from the edge of the land inward. “The more the merrier, because we can all help to put out the fire,” Seu Pedrinho says. In the past, there were more people, but today, due to the exodus of young people leaving the Amazon’s inland communities for better access to education and health care in urban areas, there are fewer hands available.
The search for alternatives
“Community members have a strong perception of the problems that arise with the increase in escaping fire, both from the national forest on the Tapajós River and from the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve,” says Joice Ferreira, a researcher at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation of the Eastern Amazon.
The Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve sits across the river from the national forest and spans nearly 650,000 hectares (1.6 million acres). Its 75 communities are home to 13,000 people who live mainly off subsistence agriculture, breeding of small livestock, and extraction of forest products. Because their livelihoods depend on a healthy forest, they feel the impacts of fires acutely, including reduced opportunities for hunting and for harvest of fruit to sell or consume. The fires also destroy their beehives and the medicinal plants they extract from the forest.
Another recent change is an increase in encounters with venomous species such as scorpions and snakes, which are driven out of the vegetation by the fires. This is a development that’s unprecedented in the scientific literature, says Joice Ferreira, a researcher who coordinates a project in both the extractive reserve and the national forest focused on the dynamics of fire in family farming. More than 500 residents from both areas have participated in the project’s workshops, including Seu Pedrinho.
The meetings are held in easily accessible communities, with members of all the other communities invited to participate. Through discussions and group dynamics, researchers hope to understand the community members’ perspectives on fire, what the inherent risks are and how they are perceived by members, the factors that have contributed to the increase in forest fires over time, and possible alternatives to burning. Developed by experts from 12 national and international education and research institutions, including federal government agencies, the project kicked off in April 2019 and will run until 2022. A course on biodiversity, fire risk and climate change for teachers in the region was scheduled for April this year, but the annual planning had to be changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Community members are interested in cutting back on fire and they would like to have a better understanding of agroforestry and agricultural systems with no burning, but find themselves trapped in the situation they’re in,” Ferreira says. “Talking about banning fire is not feasible, because changing this practice depends on tools they don’t have.”
In places in the Amazon where machinery is provided by the government, small farmers have to rent them by the hour, pay for their fuel and, in some cases, also pay for fertilizer. Fire, by contrast, is cheap and easy to employ. “From an environmental and risk reduction perspective, it’s important to put an end to the use of fire, but when you think that the use of fire in agricultural practices is ancient, we need to understand, together with the farmers, how they would adapt to a regime change in climate,” Ferreira says.
One of the main goals of her project, called Sem Flama (Without Flame), is to build a fire warning and prediction system based on the data collected at the meetings. The system will improve the visualization of fire outbreaks and prevent or accelerate fire response in the extractive reserve and the national forest. Coordinated by the National Center for Natural Disaster Monitoring and Alerts (CEMADEN), the system will contain information on the locations of communities in the region, the population density of each, where most cultivated lands are located, and which areas are closer to roads or deforested sites.
In the event of a fire, “the rapid drop in humidity will feed the system and generate alerts in certain regions,” Ferreira says. Both the environment ministry’s Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) and the community members “will have access to the information and be able to respond quickly to the event, with external fire prevention brigades and people from the community trained in firefighting.”
“We get our sustenance from the land and the river,” Seu Pedrinho says. “If you wipe out the forest and burn it down, what will you do next? There will be no fruit, no hunting, no more forest.”
His elemental wisdom, carved from the fields and the river, is in no way inconsistent with the demands made on Brazil by the global market. In June, global investment fund managers overseeing a combined $4 trillion called on the Bolsonaro administration to end the deforestation of the Amazon. At the same time, the Dutch parliament rejected a trade deal between the European Union and the South American trade bloc Mercosur (known as Mercosul in Brazil) on the same grounds. Like fire and deforestation in the Amazon, the future of the most biodiverse forest on the planet and that of humanity are tied to one another. And this is a reality that no smokescreen can conceal.