The problem of air pollution in Acre is the best documented in the entire Amazon region. The main reason is an air quality monitoring project, created by scientists at the Federal University of Acre (Ufac), which culminated in the installation of at least one portable sensor in every municipality in the state, including the historic Xapuri.
A place where the life of 77-year-old extractive leader Raimundo Mendes de Barros, cousin of rubber tapper and environmentalist Chico Mendes, was never the same after Covid-19.
The virus reached the Xapuri woods in the middle of last year. Raimundão, as he is known, was diagnosed with the disease in September, after a family member tested positive.
Since then, the combative rubber tapper, who survived the turbulent 70s and 80s, when conflicts between farmers and rural workers broke out in Acre, has become increasingly discouraged. The trips to the fields and rubber roads that Raimundão has in his place, located in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, in rural Xapuri, are not like they used to. Every 500 meters he has to sit down to catch his breath. Also, leg and arm cramps have become routine.
“Sometimes I go into the woods to cut or hunt and when it’s too late the boys and their partner get worried. At night, when I go to bed, I’m bored. It’s a dream and a nonsense! Some nights I just need to scream with these cramps. I don’t cry because I play hard. But the truth is, I’ve been feeling more delicate every day. The impression is that my life is at risk”, said the elderly, who after Covid-19 discovered a nodule in his lung.
Raimundão was the protagonist, alongside Chico, in the movements in defense of the environment and forest workers in the Alto Acre region, being, therefore, a living legend in the state’s recent history. Like his cousin, he was sworn to death, but managed to escape and went on to live by Mendes’ legacy.
Decades ago, in the rubber plantations, it was common for boys to start smoking very early. Raimundo lit his first cigarette at the age of eight. More than five decades of smoking left scars on the old rubber tapper’s health, which may have contributed to the worsening of his Covid-19 condition and to the sequelae. The fact that he lives in the epicenter of the fires in the protected areas of Acre also weighs against the well-being of the extractive.
According to the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), last year, during the fire season, which runs from July to October, Resex Chico Mendes concentrated more than 70% of fires among federal conservation units located in the state. , with 4,243 hot spots, according to the S-NPP/VIIRS (NASA) satellite. In September, the same period in which Raimundão was diagnosed with Covid-19, Xapuri was taken by smoke.
Of the 30 days of that month, 26 had air pollution records above acceptable, based on World Health Organization (WHO) criteria. The municipality was second only to the capital, Rio Branco, which had 27 days in September with a concentration of particulate matter at levels that were harmful to the human body. Acrelândia and Bujari also had 26 days above standards.
In Xapuri, the increase in the amount of microparticles is related to the growth, in September, of 94% of hospitalizations for severe acute respiratory syndrome, SRAG, and 68% for Covid-19, according to an analysis by InfoAmazonia. During the entire fire period, when the municipality had an average of 12.3 days per month with pollution levels above the recommended, the increase in hospitalizations for SRAG and the new coronavirus was 37% and 28%, respectively.
Raimundão has no doubts that the smoke harmed his health even more. “Every year during the smoker I get sick. There were days when I just had to die of suffocation. I even seek medical attention to relieve this suffocation. I’m thinking about the next few weeks, when they start to burn for real”.
Resex Chico Mendes and its surroundings have been under pressure for years, such as deforestation, fires, illegal occupation of land and cattle raising beyond what is allowed in the use plan. According to Raimundão, who has been an advisor for rural affairs of the government of Acre in the past decade, and is therefore well versed in the dynamics that take place in the area, these practices are most responsible for the pollution that punishes residents of rural and urban areas.
“I think that part of these diseases that affect the population in part have to do with this discussion of our forests, with burning and deforestation. This undoubtedly puts the health of our population at risk.”
It highlights the interest of people outside the reserve in land for raising cattle. “Now people from Rondônia have started to come and are making a real mess. These people sell 40 hectares of land there for R$10 thousand each, and when they get here they buy up to 200 hectares at a price of R$1,500 to R$2,000 per hectare. So people here are deluding themselves. They are cutting the land for sale and then they are carrying out exaggerated deforestation and fire that harms people’s health”.
The doctorate in Forest Sciences from Ufac Sonaira Silva also defends the idea that logging is closely linked to air pollution not only at Resex Chico Mendes but throughout the Amazon. The researcher, who was also a scientific consultant for the InfoAmazonia analyses, explains that most deforestation in the region occurs to open up areas for production, but she also cites land speculation as a cause. She emphasizes, however, that it is the medium and large producers, and not family farming, that cause the greatest impacts.
“Those responsible for most of the deforestation in the Amazon are the large producers. They make the most pollution. In Acre, for example, felling of more than 10 hectares represents more or less 60% of the total”. Silva also notes that in the state about 40% of fires occur in recently deforested areas, while the rest is for renovation of land already used, such as pasture and scrub.
Sonaira is one of the coordinators of the team that uses portable sensors to try to understand the relationship between fire and the pressure it causes on the population’s health. Across the state, data related to particulate matter present in the air is measured daily by 33 pieces of equipment, at least one in each municipality. The largest monitoring network of this type in the Amazon is connected to the internet and measures impurities every 80 seconds.
The work began in the late 1990s, with the installation of a single sensor on the Ufac campus in Rio Branco by professors Irving Foster Brown and Alejandro Duarte. Only in 2019 low-cost devices connected to the internet (PurpleAir PA-II-SD) were installed in all municipalities in Acre following the decision of the State Public Ministry (MP-AC) to finance the idea.
“First, we need to know the size of the problem. Everyone here has lived through periods with extreme amounts of pollution. But how much were these values? How much was the population’s exposure? The more we understand gravity, the better society’s decision-making will be. But in addition to people’s health, we also know that all of this has impacts on vegetation and animal health. In Acre, there are more cattle than people. What if pollution is hurting livestock productivity? They are more susceptible to smoke because they live in the area. It’s good to do these cost analyzes to put into the equation whether it’s really worth burning.”
The analysis of data from the sensors is carried out by the Laboratory of Geoprocessing Applied to the Environment, LabGama, created by Sonaira and other Ufac researchers. The group coordinates, in partnership with the MP-AC, universities and municipalities, the Acre Air Quality Monitoring Network, which has a website where it is possible to see measurements in the municipalities in real time. These sensors helped to validate the data from the InfoAmazonia analysis, allowing them to compare the values measured locally with those detected by the satellites.
The export of pollution
In the Amazon, some locations contribute more to pollution than others. However, microparticles can travel hundreds of kilometers, following the direction of the winds, which in the region run from east to west. This explains the high levels of smoke in places that do not make a significant contribution in terms of fire.
“The issue of smoke is not inherent to the burning site, because after burning, the polluted air goes into the atmosphere and you have other components that shape this, especially the wind,” says Sonaira.
This dynamics of air currents also helps to understand why Acre municipalities with a high incidence of fire are not necessarily the most polluted.
Feijó, for example, who led the ranking of fires between July and October, in Acre, with 5,310 records, had an average number of days per month with levels of pollution harmful to health lower than other 13 local municipalities. In September, when fires broke a record for the year in the state, the city that also deforested the most spent 21 days with particulate matter above 25 µg/m³ in the air, while other municipalities almost completed the month with pollution beyond what was recommended.
“Feijó is at the beginning of where this wind comes from. The air currents coming from Amazonas reach Acre there and also through Tarauacá and Cruzeiro do Sul and there they make the curve more towards the center of the state. For Feijoenses to feel the smoke, it has to burn a large amount above them, in the Amazon. The pollution that this municipality generates goes to the most eastern area of the state, where Sena Madureira, Rio Branco, Xapuri, Brasiléia, among others, are located”.
Acrelândia is the opposite example of Feijó. The city accounted for only 2.1% of the fires in Acre between July and October last year, but is ranked as the most polluted for the period, with an average of 14.8 days per month with an amount of inhalable microparticles harmful to health.
In these four months, the municipality registered an increase of 46% in hospitalizations for SRAG and 34% for Covid-19. In September alone, growth was 94% and 68%, respectively. “Acrelândia also concentrates a large part of the smoke from Feijó and Sena Madureira. This pollution also comes from Boca do Acre, in Amazonas, which burns a lot, in addition to Rondônia, and there it makes that pocket in this region”, explains Silva.
Rio Branco, on the other hand, has a different scenario from Feijó and Acrelândia. The most populous municipality in Acre was the third that burned the most from July to October, with 10% of the outbreaks, and occupies the same place in the list of the most polluted, with an average of 13.3 days per month with levels of pollution harmful to health . The increase in hospitalizations for SRAG and Covid-19 in this period was 40% and 30%, respectively.
However, the capital of Acre is at the top of the list of pollution when analyzed only in September, with 27 days of impure air remaining in that month. Hospitalizations for SRAG jumped 99% and for the new coronavirus, 71%.
According to Foster Brown, in some moments of the fire season, Acre even registers higher levels of pollution than São Paulo, the largest metropolis in South America.
In August of last year, the expansion of the network to other states in the Amazon began. A sensor was donated to each state in the Legal Amazon by the Public Ministry of Acre and the Woodwell Climate Research Center, but not all of them are active. With the beginning of operation of the sensors in all states, society will have important information about the effect of fires on air pollution, according to Sonaira Silva.
This report is part of “Engolindo Fumaça”, a special InfoAmazonia project produced with the support of the journalism scholarship. John S. Knight and from the program Big Local News of Stanford University.