Amazon rainforest: Farmers are losing everything to deforestation fires as experts warn it is reaching tipping point

Tuesday 15th September 2020 21:30 BST

The plea comes as leading aid agencies, including the World Wildlife Fund, issue a stark warning that the fires this year could be even worse than the 2019 outbreak.

Brazil's National Institute for Space (INPE) registered 20,670 square kilometres of burned area in the Amazon in August alone. That is 27 square kilometres per hour.

Sky News witnessed ten fires in just one small area of the APA Triunfo do Xingu national park.

And just five firefighters have been deployed to the municipality of Sao Felix do Xingu, which, at over 84,000 square kilometres, is larger than Scotland.

There are major concerns for the health of people living in the region because of the spread of thick smoke for miles around.

The rivers of the Amazon, the forests surrounding them and the communities living there are shrouded in smoke 24 hours a day in some parts - and have been for weeks.

The main town of Sao Felix do Xingu is enveloped in choking smoke throughout the day and night but is most noticeable in the morning light when the streets are filled with great clouds of smoke and ash.

Residents wear masks to protect themselves from the spread of COVID-19, which remains at epidemic proportions in the country, but they also wear the masks to help them breathe in the smog.

The government of President Jair Bolsonaro consistently denies that the Amazon is on fire, despite evidence from its own environmental agencies.

The mayor of Sao Felix do Xingu won't openly criticise the powerful ranchers or the Brazilian government, but she says they need help immediately. The fires this year, she says, are unprecedented. She blames the changing climate.

"It is a very big concern," says Minervinha Barros, "and we are going through a pandemic, which aggravates it."

She says the city is not usually affected by this level of smoke. "It is rare, because usually in July it already rains but this year the rains are delayed."

Para State is the most deforested part of the Amazon and is home to enormous cattle ranches and farms often accused of starting the fires to burn off crop land and to clear the rainforest to make more land.

Sky News drove through ranches full of cattle grazing beneath rainforest covered mountains on fire, pumping enormous clouds of smoke and ash into the air.

The fires are fanned by strong winds, scorching temperatures and a drought. There has been no significant rainfall here for months.

Uncontrolled fires are wreaking havoc on small scale farmers, particularly those attempting to produce rainforest-friendly, sustainable crops like cocoa, used to make chocolate around the world.

Sky News joined Cristovao Costa as he surveyed the wreckage of his crop. He spent two days fighting fires engulfing his farm. The fires started in a neighbouring ranch, and he's lost everything.

Walking through the still smouldering remains of his cocoa plantation he said he was considering giving up.

He said: "It made me so sad that I didn't even want to continue, you know? It's so sad to look at your things and see them in this state."

Three years of work to bring to market his first crop of cocoa beans disappeared in 24 hours.

Mr Costa is heartbroken and he is furious with the president and his supporters who deny the problems being faced in the Amazon basin.

He said: "He is a liar because the Amazon always burns, and it's ending everything. This is just people talking, there is nothing to it ... it is a big lie!"

He says the international community are complicit in its destruction.

"Do not say it's just the Brazilian people, many foreigners are involved with Brazilians, taking advantage of Brazilian lands for profit," he said.

Mr Costa, 52, and his wife, Suianni, 36, were not on the farm when they received frantic phone calls from his neighbour calling him home.

They say it was the worst journey of their lives.

"When he got on the boat to cross, the desperation was enormous," Suianni says looking at her husband.

"When he looked over here and he saw the smoke, he thought the dream is over. When we arrived it already was (burnt), we were crying all the way here. I thought our little home had caught fire."

Their humble home survived.

Sustainable farmers like Mr Costa and his neighbour, Raimundo Freire, 56, believe the land can be farmed while preserving the rainforest, but they struggle to get their voices heard in parts of the Amazon that have already been replaced by farmland and now fires.

He said: "So, many times when you think there is no fire, suddenly the fire is back. Sometimes there is a lot of dry wood that nobody sees, the embers stay there and when it gets hot it lights up again, then suddenly we have a new fire hotspot."

The need for yet another concerted effort to save the rainforest and to change farming behaviour in the region is being led by the WWF, which is warning the forest is reaching the tipping point where it can't be saved.

"Deforestation also helps drive climate change, sparking wildfires, as well as those deliberately set, during the longer and hotter dry season," Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation said.

He added that scientists believe it could take less than 5% further deforestation in the Amazon before it is lost.

The organisation's latest Living Planet Report argues that the global food system is broken and calls for new laws to be introduced in the UK.

To stop the destruction of the environment, they say, we need to change the way we produce and consume food.

"Until there is no economic incentive for habitat destruction, it will carry on, meaning the food we eat in the UK could be leading to the Amazon burning.

"We need new laws in the UK to make importing products that cause deforestation illegal - removing that financial incentive," Mr Barrett says.

The conflict between continuing deforestation and protecting the forest is at its most acute in this part of the Amazon.

The longer it goes on, it is widely acknowledged, the hotter the temperature will get.

Eventually, it is feared, it could reach a point where there is no more forest and no farms either.

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