Forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon rose 19.5% in June compared to the same month last year, making it the worst June in 13 years. With such an increase, environmental organizations are worried that this year could surpass the disastrous fires registered last year across the Amazon.
Last month was the start of the dry season in the Amazon and 2,248 forest fires were recorded, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). But the worst is actually expected in August. Last year there were more than 30,000 fires that month, a figure that will likely be exceeded this year.
Most of the forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon are caused by arson and are directly linked to deforestation, often caused by crop farmers for cultivation. Deforestation was high this year even before the start of the dry season, with more than 2,000 square kilometers lost between January and May.
INPE estimates that 9,000 square kilometers of jungle already cut down since last year could go up in flames before August begins. This also has indirect consequences, as the smoke could aggravate the chaotic situation caused by the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil. The country already has the world’s second-highest number of cases.
Environmental organizations have accused Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro of promoting deforestation by calling for the legalization of farming and mining activities in protected zones. “We cannot allow the 2019 situation to repeat itself,” Mauricio Voivodic, executive director of the WWF NGO in Brazil, told local media.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly dismissed the criticism of his handling of the Amazon, claiming the rainforest belongs to Brazil and that its natural resources should be used for the economic development of the country. Foreign interest in the Amazon is only due to their intention of controlling its mineral resources, he has said.
Defiantly, the country’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles had said the government should take advantage of the fact that people are distracted by the coronavirus epidemic to move forward in the deregulation of environmental policies. “We have to push through and change all the rules,” he said.
The Amazon spans multiple South American countries but most of it (60%) lies in Brazil. Usually described as the lungs of the Earth, the Amazon is a key carbon sink that slows down the pace of global warming. It is also highly relevant for biodiversity as it hosts about three million species of plants and animals.
Many researchers have argued that the Amazon could be close to “the tipping point,” when its nature completely changes. This will actually happen when total deforestation in the area reaches between 20% and 25%, something that could happen in the next 20 or 30 years.
A study in February showed Amazon’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) is now being impaired because of illegal logging, especially in Brazil. During the last 10 years, up to 20% of the Amazon has become a net source of CO2 in the atmosphere, a piece of very bad news for the world’s climate.