Facing a global pressure over his environmental policies, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro described the fires in the Amazon rainforest as a ‘lie’, despite data from his own administration actually shows that there are thousands of open fires across the tropical region.
A report from Brazil’s national space research agency INPE showed that in the first 10 days of August forest fires were up 17% compared to the same period last year. Deforestation has grown 34.5% in the 12-months through July compared to the same period a year ago, according to INPE.
Nevertheless, Bolsonaro contested the data, claiming that those traveling by air in the Brazilian territory wouldn’t see a single flame.
“They won’t find any spot of fire, nor a quarter of a hectare deforested,” he said in a meeting of members of the Leticia Pact, an agreement between Amazon countries to protect the rainforest.
“This story that the Amazon is going up in flames is a lie and we must combat it with true numbers,” Bolsonaro said, claiming that Brazil proved that it can protect the Amazon alone as most of the forest is still standing. He said media and foreign governments are presenting a “false narrative” about the Amazon.
Nevertheless, environmentalists argue that isn’t the case. They 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 Amazonian environment.
There are over 240 satellite images of fires uploaded on Planet. This is just one of them.
“This is not because of government incompetence in combating devastation; it has been happening because the Bolsonaro administration’s agenda is to actively promote devastation. This is not incompetence; it’s a design,” said the Climate Observatory, a group comprised of more than 30 non-governmental organizations from Brazil.
It should surprise no one that the Brazilian president is doing his best to undermine the Amazon. Bolsonaro came to power promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon. He even asked Congress to change environmental protection laws and cut the budget and the staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA, recently replacing its managers and coordinators.
Back in May, a video of a governmental meeting showed Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles claiming the government should take advantage of the media’s focus on the Covid-19 pandemic to loosen the environmental restrictions. The video was disclosed as part of a Supreme Court investigation. The deregulation of the Amazon has been a core part of the Bolsonaro approach so far.
When deregulation could not be done, it’s lack of enforcement. Environmental groups have called the government to better penalize the major loggers in order to truly protect the Amazon, using not only sanctions but also blocking bank accounts, for example. A study by InfoAmazonia showed that only 3% of the fines imposed since October 2019 were actually paid.
While Bolsonaro dismisses any sense of urgency, international pressure is mounting on Brazil to protect the Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world and a vital ecosystem to preserve climate change. 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.
But there are some good news yet.
The Brazilian government launched in June the Green Brazil Operation 2, a military mission headed by the Vice President Hamilton Mourão with the aim of curbing illegal deforestation.
“Our goal is to take the fires in the second half (of the year) to the minimum acceptable,” Mourão said in a press conference.
Bolsonaro also said last week his administration will launch a sustainable development fund in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank. It will be “an innovative financial mechanism for countries in the region and investors willing to promote the bioeconomy with respect for our standards,” he argued. Whether or not this project will be carried out responsible remains to be seen.
Environmentalists argue there’s no time to lose. The tropical forest is close to a tipping point when 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.