Brazil's Amazon rainforest burning at a record rate

President Bolsonaro suggests they were started by environmental NGOs to embarrass his government

Photo: Getty Images

Brazil's Amazon rainforest is burning at an unprecedented rate, with scientists warning that it could strike a devastating blow to the fight against climate change. According to country's space research center, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), satellite data show a record number of fires raging in the Amazon rainforest in 2019. Most specifically, there have been 72,843 fires in Brazil this year, with more than half in the Amazon region, INPE said.

That's more than an 84% increase compared with the same period last year and the highest rate since the research center started tracking them in 2013. Nevertheless, since 15 August alone, more than 9,500 new forest fires have started across the country, primarily in the Amazon basin. The European Union's satellite program, Copernicus, released a map showing smoke from the fires spreading all along Brazil to the east Atlantic coast. The smoke has covered nearly half of the country and is even spilling over into neighboring Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay.

And the fires are unlikely starting themselves. Rather they may be set by people in an attempt to clear land for cattle ranching.

Cattle ranching is responsible for as much as 80% of the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. A significant portion of the global beef supply, including much of the UK’s corned beef supply, originates on land that was once Amazon rainforest and is now denuded.

“The fire that we’re seeing today is a fire that’s directly related to deforestation,” Ane Alencar, the scientific director of Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental Research in Amazonia), told forest news website Mongabay. These are not wildfires, she said, but rather fires set by people seeking to create cattle ranches, intentionally ignited during the dry season each year. “They cut the trees, leave the wood to dry and later put fire to it, so that the ashes can fertilize the soil.”

This week of fires comes on the heels of another worrisome milestone for the world's largest rainforest.  As Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has expressed disdain for conserving the rainforest, his support for industrial growth has reportedly encouraged ranchers and other developers to move more brazenly into undeveloped forest land - much of which is indigenous territory. Over the last half century, a total area larger than the state of Texas has been lost to deforestation. As loggers, ranchers, and miners continue to encroach on the ecosystem, the loss is accelerating. The month of July alone set a new record for the most deforestation ever in the Amazon in a single month. During the period the Amazon shrunk by 1,345sq km, which is more than twice the area of Tokyo.

But Bolsonaro, refused that data and has accused environmental groups of setting the latest set of fires in the Amazon as he tries to deflect growing international criticism of his failure to protect the world’s biggest rainforest.

“On the question of burning in the Amazon, which in my opinion may have been initiated by NGOs because they lost money, what is the intention? To bring problems to Brazil,” the president told a steel industry congress in Brasilia.

He made a similar allegation earlier in the day when he suggested groups had gone out with cameras and started fires so they could film them. Asked whether he had evidence, or whether he could name the NGOs involved, Bolsonaro said there were no written records and it was "just his feeling."

In response, environmental activists said his comments were an absurd attempt to deflect attention from the problem of poor oversight and tacit encouragement of illegal forest clearance.

“Those who destroy the Amazon and let deforestation continue unabated are encouraged by the Bolsonaro government’s actions and policies. Since taking office, the current government has been systematically dismantling Brazil’s environmental policy,” said Danicley Aguiar, of Greenpeace Brazil.

Tropical rainforests are critical storage sites for carbon dioxide, keeping the greenhouse gas in its solid carbon state, locked away in soils and trees. And the Amazon is considered to be the largest on the planet, often being referred to as the planet's lungs, producing 20% of the oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere. Its protection is thus critical to preventing runaway climate change.

The Amazon is also a biodiversity hotspot, and includes the most biodiverse place on Earth. It is home to about three million species of plants and animals, making its preservation a matter of slowing down fauna and flora extinctions, too. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in more than 400 tribes also live in the Amazon, and rely on the rainforest to support their lives and preserve their cultures.

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