Brazil’s space agency said this week that more than 72,000 fires had broken out across the Amazon rainforest since the start of the year, imperilling one of the planet’s last refuges of biodiversity and raising concern about the region’s ability to combat climate change amid a rollback of environmental protections by the country’s far-right leader, President Jair Bolsonaro.
Here’s what you need to know about the destructive blazes and how they could affect the rest of the planet.
Far more fires than usual
Brazil’s space research agency, known as INPE, said this month that as of Wednesday, the Brazilian Amazon had seen 75,336 fires since January. Those numbers far outstrip the number of fires last year and represent more than an 85 per cent increase over 2017.
The figures also dwarf those seen in 2016, when there were 67,790 fires by this point in the year. In 2016, the fires were linked to a strong El Niño ocean pattern that saw the region face extreme drought conditions, The Washington Post notes.
Forests clean up Earth’s air
The Amazon rainforest is one of the richest areas of biodiversity on the planet and covers 5.49 square kilometres. It’s often touted as one of the planet’s biggest oxygen suppliers as well as a key mechanism to absorb carbon dioxide and thereby slow the effects of climate change. The world’s forests suck up 2.4 billion tons of carbon annually, with the Amazon alone absorbing about a quarter of that.
But the rainforest’s ability to do so has been weakening, according to a 2015 study. Scientists have warned that even without fires and deforestation, the Amazon won’t be able to keep up with the skyrocketing levels of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere every year.
Fires blamed on humans
INPE researcher Alberto Setzer told Reuters this week that, although fires can be more common in particularly dry years, humans were primarily to blame for the rampant level in recent months. Farmers, emboldened by Bolsonaro, have been setting illegal blazes to clear land for cattle and crops. The Brazilian leader has scaled back his government’s efforts to rein in the destruction, instead promising to open up protected lands to development in order to spur economic growth.
“There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average,” Setzer told Reuters. “The dry season creates the favourable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident.”
Mikaela Weisse, a manager at Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the World Resources Institute, told The New York Times this week that natural fires were relatively rare in the Amazon.
“So all, or almost all, the fires we are seeing are set by humans,” Weisse told the Times.
Flames can be seen from space
The fires have grown exponentially over the past two months during the arrival of the dry season in Brazil. NASA’s Earth Observatory released images of smoke from the fires blanketing the Amazon basin, and the haze grew so bad at one point that it darkened the skies above São Paulo in the middle of the day.
The sudden darkening prompted an outcry on social media, with some residents declaring the “apocalypse” had come while others organized around the hashtag #prayforamazonia.
Fingers pointed at Bolsonaro
Bolsonaro has been in power only since January, but the Amazon had already lost more than 3,445 square kilometres of forest cover by July as the Brazilian government pulled back on enforcing environmental policies, the Times reported last month.
Environmental groups have cast the Bolsonaro government’s policies as a driving force behind the destruction in the Amazon.
“The unprecedented fires ravaging the Amazon are an international tragedy and a dangerous contribution to climate chaos,” Christian Poirier, the program director of Amazon Watch, an environmental non-profit organization, said in a statement.
“This devastation is directly related to President Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental rhetoric, which erroneously frames forest protections and human rights as impediments to Brazil’s economic growth,” Poirier said. “Farmers and ranchers understand the president’s message as a licence to commit arson with wanton impunity, in order to aggressively expand their operations into the rainforest.”
Bolsonaro has blamed environmental groups in turn, claiming in a Facebook Live broadcast this week, without evidence, that non-government organizations were setting the fires. The Brazilian government recently slashed funding to green groups in line with Bolsonaro’s anti-environment agenda.
“Maybe — I am not affirming it — these [NGO people] are carrying out some criminal actions to draw attention against me, against the government of Brazil,” Bolsonaro said in the broadcast, according to a translation by The Associated Press. “There is a war going on in the world against Brazil, an information war.”