Brazil is experiencing its highest rate of forest fires since 2013, when the country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) first starting tracking the fires using satellite data. Over half of this year’s 73,000 fires are located in the Amazon region. If that figure seems too big to wrap your head around, think about it this way: according to INPE, the fires are burning at a rate of one and a half soccer fields’ worth of rainforest per minute every day.
This has dire implications for the health of the planet. The Amazon rainforest, in the past, has functioned as a carbon sink, pulling greenhouse gases from the air and releasing clean oxygen in return. This helps it to act as a significant buffer against global warming. Due to a series of droughts, the rainforest has in effect become “carbon neutral” as it is losing trees faster than it’s growing them. This year’s fires, creating plumes of smoke that are visible from space and darkening the skies of cities elsewhere in the country, are further limiting the forest’s capacity to retain carbon. The bottom line is that we are at risk of losing the “lungs of the earth.” Locally, this puts indigenous communities at risk of losing their ancestral lands.
In the humid conditions of the rainforest, fires are not a natural occurrence. Conservationists have blamed the fires on the pro-deforestation, pro-business administration of President Jair Bolsonaro who has from the start of his presidency sought to expand territory from ranchers and remove protections from indigenous territories in the Amazon. “The explosion of deforestation can be attributed both to changes in government actions, such as essentially ending inspections for illegal deforestation and fining those who are caught, and from the rhetoric from President Bolsonaro and his ministers, especially the minister of environment,” an Amazon researcher told Newsweek. “This has created a climate of impunity under the assumption that there will be no consequences for ignoring environmental regulations.” Meanwhile, the director of INPE Ricardo Galvão was fired earlier this month after standing behind satellite data indicating that deforestation has nearly doubled in the past year, scientific evidence that Bolsonaro flat-out rejected.
Bolsonaro has expressed no concern whatsoever about the ecological or territorial ramifications of the fires, initially chalking them up to the country’s typical dry season in which farmers customarily clear land, though the fires have reached unprecedented numbers. However, on Wednesday morning, he changed his tune and accused NGOs — without any evidence of his own — of deliberately setting fires to the Amazon to hurt his administration.