The Brazilian Amazon is experiencing the worst expansion of forest fires in almost ten years, according to official figures released by the government yesterday. Fires increased 14% in the first nine months of the year compared with a year ago, as the rainforest sees a severe drought.
The space research agency INPE recorded in September a whopping 32,017 fire hotspots in the Brazilian Amazon — a 61% increase from the same month in 2019. August had already surpassed last year’s single-month high, showing a worrying trendin the world’s largest rainforest.
“We have had two months with a lot of fire. It’s already worse than last year,” Ane Alencar, science director for Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), told Reuters news agency. “It could get worse if the drought continues. We are at the mercy of the rain,” Alencar added.
The Amazon is experiencing a more severe dry season than last year, which scientists link in part to warming in the tropical North Atlantic Ocean pulling moisture away from South America. The entire Amazon, which spans over nine countries (60% of the rainforest is contained within Brazil), currently has 28,892 active fires, according to a fire monitoring tool from NASA.
This time of the year 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, presumably due to intensified ranch activity.
Environmentalists link the forest fires with President Bolsonaro’s vision of economic development, which essentially allows illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and miners to destroy the forest with little to no repercussion. Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that mining and farming are needed to take people out of poverty and has shown a lack of interest for the Amazon and has shown no concern for the environmental preservation of the Amazon.
The warming of the North Atlantic is also helping drive drought in the Brazilian Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, which has suffered more fires this year than ever previously recorded, according to official data. A Federal University of Rio de Janeiro analysis found that 23% of the wetlands have already burned. Earlier this week, Bolsonaro, an ally of US President Donald Trump, questioned US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for “disastrous and unnecessary” comments on the destruction of the rainforest. Biden said if elected he would raise $20 billion to help Brazil to “stop tearing down” the Amazon.
Later, in a video address to a UN biodiversity summit, Bolsonaro said Brazil was “firm in its commitment to sustainable development and preserving our environmental wealth.” At the same time, he accused “certain non-governmental organizations” of perpetrating “environmental crimes” to stain the country’s image. But Bolsonaro’s actions do little to match his words.
Brazil is coming under growing pressure from foreign governments, international investors and trading partners over the scale of deforestation and forest fires. In June, investment firms managing nearly $4 trillion in assets sent an open letter to Bolsonaro, urging him to change policies.