As the Amazon burns, Brazil's president draws global outrage
As fires rage across the Amazon rainforest, non-government organizations (NGOs), environmentalists and people on social media are blaming Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Meanwhile, he’s responded by baselessly claiming the groups themselves are setting the fires.
Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has been tracking the damage and its satellite data showed on Thursday a record-breaking 75,336 fires have swept across Brazil’s forests in the past eight months.
The staggering number of fires, mostly in the Amazon, represents roughly a 84-per-cent spike compared to last year. It’s also the largest number of fires recorded in a year since the agency began tracking fires in 2013.
Mariana Ferreira, science program manager for World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Brazil, told CTV News channel the “fires are strongly associated with deforestation.”
Conservationists, including those with the WWF, said the fires aren’t occurring simply due to the dry season, which spans from July to early November when land is cleared for crops and grazing, as Bolsonaro briefly claimed.
Ferreira pointed out that “the municipalities where deforestation has risen a lot, are the same places where we are seeing the fires.”
In a statement, the WWF points out that since Bolsonaro was sworn into office in January, there’s been a massive spike in deforestation, illegal logging and the government failing to crack down illegal burns.
Christian Poirier, the program director of non-profit organization Amazon Watch, told CNN the level of this year’s deforestation was "unprecedented." He explained that even during dry seasons, the Amazon doesn’t catch fire easily so "the vast majority of these fires are human-lit.”
Camila Veiga of the Brazilian Association of NGOs told AFP that “the fires are the consequence of a policy of environmental devastation, of support for agribusiness, of increasing pastures.”
Ferreira said there are other regions being affected and that Brazilians are arguing for “strong change in how this government is facing and talking about the Amazon.”
BRAZIL’S PRESIDENT BASELESSLY CLAIMS NGOS SET FIRES
Bolsonaro initially revelled in the criticism, reportedly calling himself “Captain Chainsaw,” and claimed that the record-breaking number of fires was simply due to the “season of the queimada (burn).”
But then, without any evidence, he later claimed that the fires were caused by "criminal action by those NGOs, to call attention against me, against the Brazilian government."
AFP reported that Bolsonaro suggested the fires were set because his government had cut the funding to several NGOs. "All the indications suggest they went there to film and start fires. That's what I feel,” he said.
Even Brazil’s space agency INPE itself has been in Bolsonaro’s crosshairs, after it released unfavourable deforestation data in the past several months. The head of the agency was fired because Bolsonaro felt the data was inaccurate and made Brazil look bad to the rest of the world, The Associated Press reported.
Ferreira said none of his rhetoric is actually helping to contain the deforestation or the fires.
The Amazon, often nicknamed “The Lungs of The Planet,” provides between 20 to 25 per cent of the world’s oxygen and helps to curb greenhouse gases and the effects of climate change.
But at the same time as more of the Amazon is burned away, its collective ability to absorb carbon in the air has decreased recently, one study found.
Although Ferreira said there is the potential for harm to fresh water, animal habitats and threatened species, but that scientists won’t be able to determine the extent of the damage until the fires have subsided.
She added there are reports of children and older residents “going to hospitals due to smoke.”
The recent images have shocked people around the world, making hashtags #PrayforAmazonas and #PrayForTheAmazon go viral on Twitter.
People have been using them to share images and videos of the fires levelling entire swaths of forests, animals running from their habitats, and even the smoke briefly covering coastal cities such as Sao Paulo in darkness.
"No matter how successful we are, if our Earth dies, we all die," posted one Twitter user, with another writing, "send your prayers to the Amazon and to the planet, we will need it."
Many are also calling out Bolsonaro’s policies and his anti-environment rhetoric, saying that they emboldened loggers, miners and farmers. Ferreira said that Bolsonaro needs to realize that the rainforests are an “asset for Brazilian economic development not hampering it.”
Other critics also say the president has failed to address illegal logging and burns in the region.
In a statement translated from Portugese, the non-profit Observatorio do Clima (Climate Observatory) wrote that the recent wave of fires lay bare Bolsonaro’s failed policies and "reflect the irresponsibility of the president."