Brazil’s Amazon is burning at a record rate, according to data from the National Institute of Space Research that intensified domestic and international scrutiny of President Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policies.
INPE, as the institute is known, recorded an 84 per cent increase in fires in Brazil between 2018 and 2019, most in the Amazon rainforest. It was the highest level in seven years of record keeping. Bolsonaro said on Wednesday, without offering evidence, that NGOs could be setting the blazes to discredit him.
The president has come under intense pressure to contain the fires raging through the world’s largest rainforest, many set by loggers incentivised by his government. Darkness spread over the megacity of Sao Paulo on Monday afternoon, unnerving locals and triggering a fierce scientific debate over its cause. Some researchers blamed the gloom on a cold front coupled with smoke from Amazon blazes more than 1,500 kilometres away. The hashtag #PrayforAmazonia has dominated social media in Brazil over the past few days.
For those living in the Amazon, the smoke is intense. Moises Fernandes, an agronomist and consultant who lives in the Amazon area, said that it’s been several days since he’s been able to see the river that lies just 450 metres away from his apartment.
The fires are not in the interests of large-scale landowners who own cattle that need to graze, and are mainly caused by smallholders in the region to recover their fields, he noted. “The small-scale producer is the one burning,” he said. “He burns because he doesn’t have access to technology, means of production, [or] technical assistance so he winds up doing that.”
Fernandes says that oversight has decreased over recent years but the problem is not new, and is not limited to this government.
“It’s normal to see fires at the end of the dry season,” Celso Oliveira, a meteorologist in Sao Paulo, said, adding that many parts of the country had gone three to six months without rain. “But there are also many fires caused by people clearing pasture and planting soybeans. There’s a lot of pressure on the Amazon region.”
Oliveira, however, dismissed suggestions that the eerie darkness that descended on Brazil’s most heavily populated city had anything to do with the fires in the Amazon, pointing to official data showing good air quality in the area. “The gloom has no relation to the smoke, it happened because of the enormity of the clouds,” he said.
Regardless of the exact cause of Monday’s strange weather, the event has drawn attention to Bolsonaro’s environmental policies. The president has spoken repeatedly of his desire to develop the Amazon economically and integrate the indigenous people living there into modern Brazilian society.
He also recently fired the head of INPE, Ricardo Galvao, after dismissing data showing an 88 per cent rise in deforestation between June 2018 and June 2019 as “lies”. Galvao’s replacement said that climate change “is not my thing”.
There’s little prospect of a sudden change in the weather putting out the fires. Brazil has been drier than normal and there doesn’t look to be any real relief until the rainy season starts in December, said Jason Nicholls, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc in the US.
“I really don’t see any prospects of the rainy season kicking in earlier,” Nicholls said. “There will be very little help from Mother Nature over the next two or three months or so.”