Burning in the Amazon is already reaching the record levels seen in 2019

Despite pressure from civil society and foreign investors, forest fires seem to be unstoppable in the Brazilian Amazon. The number of fires last month was the second-highest for August in a decade. This nears the crisis level that led to a global outrage last year against the Jair Bolsonaro administration.

Credit CIFOR Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Satellite images gathered by Brazilian space agency INPE showed a record number of 29,307 fires in August, the second highest number in a decade and only 5.2% lower than the absolute highest, in August 2019. The number might have even been larger than reported as one of the satellites had technical problems, INPE said.

Last year the number of forest fires in Brazil rose 200% in August compared to the same month in 2018, reaching 30,900 and sending smoke all across the country. This created a global alarm regarding the devastation of the world’s largest rainforest, highly important as a carbon source and for its biodiversity.

But that’s just the environmental costs. A recent report by a group of health and environmental organizations highlighted the health costs of the fires, estimating they caused 2,195 hospitalizations due to respiratory illness last year. This includes 500 infants under one year old and more than 1,000 over 60.

“The data confirm the failure of the costly and badly planned operation by the Brazilian armed forces in the Amazon, which the Bolsonaro government has tried to substitute for a real plan to fight deforestation,” said in a press release the Climate Observatory, a group of Brazilian environmental NGOs.

Slash and burn

August is usually the beginning of the fire season in the Amazon, as farmers and ranchers who have felled trees on their land take advantage of the dryer weather to set them on fire. While this is the common practice, its extension suggests deforestation is ramping up in several areas of the Brazilian Amazon.

Environmentalists link the forest fires with Bolsonaro’s vision of economic development, which essentially allows illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and miners to destroy the forest. Bolsonaro has repeatedly said mining and farming are needed to take people out of poverty and has shown a lack of interest for the Amazon.

The Brazilian president is doing his best to undermine the Amazon. He came to power promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon, even asking Congress to change environmental protection laws and to cut the budget and staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA.

Under growing pressure from global leaders, Bolsonaro recently deployed the army to the Amazon to crack down on deforestation and fires, and decreed a ban on all agricultural burning. But environmentalists remain critical of the far-right leader, asking for further action to better protect the country’s natural resources.

“Last year, images of the Amazon in flames made headlines around the world. This year, the tragedy is repeating itself. Yet the government wants to cut the (environment ministry’s) budget next year,” Romulo Batista, spokesman for environmental group Greenpeace, said in a statement, accusing Bolsonaro of “dismantling” Brazil’s environmental protection agencies.

While Bolsonaro dismisses any sense of urgency, international pressure is mounting on Brazil to protect the Amazon. Global investors managing more than US$2 trillion threatened to pull back their investments if Bolsonaro doesn’t take action. However, Bolsonaro’s outward denial of facts seems to spell more trouble for the Amazon.

Environmentalists argue there’s no time to lose. The tropical forest is close to a tipping point as deforestation could alter the entire forest’s ecology and turn large areas into an arid savanna, with devastating consequences not only for the Amazon but for the entire planet’s climate.

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