Brazilian Amazon fires surge in July

(FILES) In this file photo taken on August 27, 2019 smoke rises from forest fires in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, in the Amazon basin. – Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon registered a semi-annual record of 3,070 km2 between January and June, 2020, according to official data that increases pressure on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to abandon his projects of economic opening of the largest rainforest in the planet. (Photo by Joao Laet / AFP)

by Joshua Howat Berger
Agence France-Presse

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AFP) — The number of forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon last month rose 28 percent from July 2019, satellite data showed Saturday, fueling fears the world’s biggest rainforest will again be devastated by fires this year.

Brazil’s national space agency, INPE, identified 6,803 fires in the Amazon region in July 2020, up from 5,318 the year before.

The figure is all the more troubling given that 2019 was already a devastating year for fires in the Amazon, triggering global outcry.

That has put pressure on Brazil, which holds around 60 percent of the Amazon basin region, to do more to protect the massive forest, seen as vital to containing the impact of climate change.

(FILES) This file photo taken on August 23, 2019 shows an aerial picture of a deforested piece of land in the Amazon rainforest near an area affected by fires, about 65 km from Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia, in northern Brazil. (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA / AFP)

The fires are largely set to clear land illegally for farming, ranching and mining.

Activists accuse Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right climate change skeptic, of encouraging the deforestation with calls to open up the rainforest to agriculture and industry.

Under international pressure, Bolsonaro has deployed the army to fight the fires and declared a moratorium on burning. But activists say that does not go far enough to address the roots of the problem.

Fires rose 77 percent on indigenous lands and 50 percent on protected nature reserves from July 2019, environmental group Greenpeace said, showing how illegal activities are increasingly encroaching on those areas.

On July 30 alone, satellites detected 1,007 fires in the Amazon, INPE said.

That was the worst single day for fires in the month of July since 2005, said Greenpeace.

“More than 1,000 fires in a single day is a 15-year record and shows the government’s strategy of media-spectacle operations is not working on the ground,” Greenpeace spokesman Romulo Batista said in a statement.

(FILE) Aerial view of burnt areas of the Amazon rainforest, near Boca do Acre, Amazonas state, Brazil, in the Amazon basin, on August 24, 2019. (Photo by Lula SAMPAIO / AFP)

“On paper, the fire moratorium prohibits burning, but it only works if there is also a response on the ground, with more patrols. Criminals aren’t known for obeying the law.”

Instead, the Bolsonaro administration has slashed the budget, staff and programs of environmental authority IBAMA.

“Everything that was working was thrown out the window,” Erika Berenguer, an Amazon ecologist at Oxford and Lancaster Universities, told AFP.

‘Conditions ripe’

Fire season in the Amazon typically runs from around June to October.

But fires are just part of the deforestation picture.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on August 26, 2019 Brazilian farmer Helio Lombardo Do Santos and a dog walk through a burnt area of the Amazon rainforest, near Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil. (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA / AFP)

The rest of the year, ranchers, farmers, miners and land speculators are clearing forest and preparing to burn it.

The first six months of 2020 were the worst on record for deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, with 3,069 square kilometers (1,185 square miles) cleared, according to INPE data — an area bigger than the nation of Luxembourg.

If a significant portion of those felled trees burn in 2020, the result could be catastrophic, experts warn.

“I think August will be the make-or-break month,” said Berenguer.

Last year, the number of fires surged nearly 200 percent year-on-year in August, to 30,900, sending a thick haze of black smoke all the way to Sao Paulo, thousands of kilometers away, and causing worldwide alarm.

The number of fires has fallen since then, under increased scrutiny and pressure — including from companies and investors worried about the impact on Brazil’s brand.

But Berenguer said it was a matter of time before the newly deforested land went up in flames in the name of farming and ranching.

“It’s an economic investment to deforest. It’s expensive…. You need heavy machinery: bulldozers, tractors, people, diesel,” she said.

“You don’t deforest to leave all those trees on the ground. You need to burn it, because you need to recover your investment.”

Furthermore, US space agency NASA warned last month that warmer ocean surface temperatures in the North Atlantic mean the southern Amazon is facing a major drought this year.

It said that made “human-set fires used for agriculture and land clearing more prone to growing out of control and spreading.”

“Conditions are ripe,” it said.

Exacerbating the situation this year, experts say the resulting smoke risks causing a spike in respiratory emergencies in a region already hit hard by COVID-19.

Brazil has more infections and deaths from the new coronavirus than any country except the United States: more than 2.6 million and 92,000, respectively.