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The Amazon is burning – and Brazilians are blaming Bolsonaro

Bruno Kelly, Reuters | A part of the Amazon near Iranduba, in the state of Amazonas, burning on August 20, 2019.

The Amazon is the “lungs of the world” – and it’s going up in smoke. There’s been an 83% increase in forest fires since early 2019, said Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) Wednesday. Many blame the policies of President Bolsonaro.

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This dramatic surge in wildfires is partly due to the country’s dry season, but is also a consequence of rising deforestation under President Jair Bolsonaro's far-right administration.

Between January and August, 72,843 fires were detected, a huge increase on 39,759 during the whole of 2018. The hike comes after two consecutive years of a decline in the number of wildfires, and is the highest figure since 2013, according to INPE.

Darkened skies in Sao Paulo

On August 19, smoke from the forest fires even brought about a daytime eclipse in Sao Paulo, the biggest city in the country. For around an hour, the sky went dark as wind blew over smoke from forest fires raging in the states of Amazonas and Rondonia, more than 2,700 kilometres away.

The plumes of smoke were so dense and covered such a large area that they could be seen from space, said an American environmental agency, which captured satellite images of the smoke.

States with the most fires are those covered totally or partially by the Amazon forest. The state that has been the most affected by forest fires is Mato Grosso, in the west-central part of the country, with 13,682 fires – an increase of 87% on 2018. Another state, Amazonas, declared a state of emergency because of the fires.

The Amazon is seen as the last, fragile buffer against climate change – if the Amazon is lost, than the fight against climate change is as well.

Deforestation at work

Uncontrollable wildfires in the Amazon can be started accidentally during the “queimada” -- slash-and-burn clearing used to transform forest areas into cultivation and livestock areas, or to clean up already deforested areas, usually during the dry season that ends in two months.

Bolsonaro indicated that the queimada was to blame for the sudden rise in fires, but this has been refuted by environmentalists, who say that while the dry season provides ideal conditions in which fires can burn, fires can only be started in the first place by human intervention.

The president has brushed off criticism of his support of deforestation, and has lashed out at environmental NGOs and agencies. He even suggested, in a video posted on his Facebook account on Wednesday, that NGOs were sabotaging his government by setting the fires themselves. When reporters asked him for evidence of these claims, the president did not provide any.

Bolsonaro is known for exerting pressure on organisations committed to fighting deforestation. The president of INPE, Ricardo Galvao, was sacked last week after the institute published figures revealing the soaring levels of deforestation. The government slammed the report as “sensationalist” lies.

Bolsonaro under fire himself

As fires continue to rage in the Amazon, people around the world have taken to social media to show their support for the region with the hashtag #PrayForAmazonia.

Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environment minister, told AFP on Wednesday that: "All the rules on illegal deforestation have been upheld, all strategies have continued to be enforced." He said that the government had mobilised emergency workers and planes to fight the fires, and were working with regional governments to halt the damage.

Since Bolsonaro’s inauguration as president, his government has gradually chipped away at previously existing environmental protection laws. Previous governments had managed to get a handle on deforestation by cracking down on illegal actors with tougher regulations and fines.

>> See more: FOCUS: Is Bolsonaro's presidency a threat to the Amazon?

Bolsonaro, however, has been actively encouraging aggressive economic exploitation of Brazil’s resources – even in protected areas, or those occupied by indigenous people.

“For Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s wealth is in its industry," said Marie-Pierre Ledru, a specialist in the Amazon, in an interview with FRANCE 24 earlier this month. “He wants to transform the Amazon into an enormous plot for soy. Brazilian agricultural lobbies have started to explore the north of Amazonia with the aim of growing crops there when there’s winter in the south. The Brazilian president supports these efforts.”

International sanctions for Brazil

Bolsonaro is facing international pressure for his refusal to enact measures protecting the rainforest. Norway’s environment minister announced last week that it was freezing its €30 million ($33.2 million) contribution to the conservation Amazon Fund. A few days earlier, Germany also suspended a payment of 35 million euros, to be reinstated when deforestation figures are more encouraging.

Local governments in Amazonian states have protested against these sanctions. They are calling for financial aid to be managed by and paid out directly to the states themselves, rather than managed centrally by the development bank BNDES.

In a statement, regional governors said that they were “totally opposed to all illegal economic activity in the region” and that they would “speak directly to the countries” financing the Amazon protection funds.

In July, more than 1,340 square kilometres of Amazonian forest were destroyed, an area almost the size of Luxembourg. The destruction is rapid: it’s the equivalent of three football fields being destroyed every minute.

This article was adapted from the original in French

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