The global media, world leaders, celebrities and environmental activists have expressed alarm at the mass arson in the Amazon rainforest, even as Hurricane Dorian and the heatwaves of this northern hemisphere summer underline the seriousness of the climate emergency.
The Amazon spans nine South American countries, and the vast continental forest was a biodiversity hotspot even before the fires were started by farmers emboldened by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsanaro’s encouragement to clear trees to make way for farms.
The Amazon acts as a vast sink for atmospheric carbon. Scientists have said that preserving forests and re-greening degraded land is the single most effective way to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, even as countries globally work on slashing emissions.
Mass burning of forests not only releases more carbon into the atmosphere, but also decreases the capacity of the planet to absorb carbon dioxide. Besides this, forests also fulfil critical life-affirming functions, such as maintaining water quality, sustaining bio-diversity and regulating micro-climates and weather processes.
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However, Brazil does not have a monopoly on forest destruction. In 2017 and 2018, massive forest fires in California raged for weeks, killing 100 people. Fires started by farmers clearing forests for agriculture and palm oil plantations in Kalimantan and Sumatra blanket Southeast Asia in smoke every year.
Forest fires have also become more common in Nepal and across the Himalaya. In March 2009, following the failure of winter rains, enormous fires raged across the country destroying more than 105,000ha of forest land, and killing 43. (See NASA satellite image below.) In the past year there have been 2,771 fires in which 89 people have been killed, according to the National Emergency Operation Centre. Damage to property and livestock totalled Rs4 billion.
Big multiple fires, like these during spring, lead to black carbon or soot being transported by prevailing up-valley winds to be deposited on the snow, reducing its ability to reflect sunlight, and increasing ice melt during the spring thaw. Measurements on the Yala Glacier in Langtang have shown that up to a quarter of the ice melt is now due to dirty snow — the rest is caused by rising global average temperatures.
Increasingly rapid warming of the earth’s surface, erratic rain and droughts make forests more vulnerable to fires — even in Nepal’s successful community forests, which have helped increase the country’s total canopy cover.
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There has been a global effort to compensate countries, forest dependent people and local custodians for protecting forests instead of cutting them down. After a conference in Bali in 2007, Nepal got involved in the program Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+). But despite the transfer of some global funds to forest groups, uncertainty about the mechanism, technical considerations around measurement, and avoiding loss of the carbon stock have prevented REDD+ from being more effective, efficient and equitable. Moreover, in countries like Nepal with leaky bureaucracies, the benefits rarely reach local communities and the real managers of forests.
Other issues, such as unclear tenure rights, limited access to resources for forest dependent people, lack of governance reforms, centralising tendencies of forest departments, inequitable benefit sharing and the poor implementation of social and environmental safeguards, continue to plague programs like REDD+. Overharvesting, illegal logging, infrastructure and conversion to plantations make conservation more difficult when we need forests more than ever before.
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Forests have inherent intrinsic value: they cool the air, sustain biodiversity, provide food, absorb carbon and produce a range of other ecosystem services. Yet, rising temperatures will introduce new risks, making forest areas more susceptible to fires, including in Nepal. The land turns dry during non-monsoon months, fanning fires that in turn destroy vegetation and undergrowth, exposing more land surface to erosion during rains and increasing the sediment loads on rivers, leading to more flash floods.
Already burdened with growing enough to feed their families, small-scale farmers across Nepal will find it increasingly harder to adapt to this changing reality. Without pragmatic measures involving communities and buttressing local capacity to address fires, the climate crisis will bring risks to the very idea of banking carbon in forests across the mountains, hills and plains.
The Amazon fires should remind us of the urgency of formulating policies for least developed countries like Nepal, policies that emphasise building institutional capacity backed by resources to deal with potential large-scale forest fires. Without this effort, the past success of Nepal’s community forestry programs could be in serious peril.
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Ajaya Dixit is research adviser at the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET-Nepal) and contributes this column Climate for Change monthly.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.