In case you weren’t on social media this week, the Amazon is burning down. According to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), wildfires in the Amazon have increased by 83 percent compared to the same period last year with 72,843 fires detected so far—the highest rate since the INPE began tracking them in 2013.
The fires have been going on for weeks; on August 9 the state of Amazonas declared a state of emergency. The fires had received little international media coverage until this week when the hashtag #PrayforAmazonas was trending on Twitter and Instagram. Often referred to as the lungs of the Earth—due to its production of 20 percent of the oxygen in the planet’s atmosphere—the Amazon is home to half of the world’s tropical forests and is the most biodiverse place on earth. Romulo Batista from Greenpeace Brazil, said that due to the fires “we’re losing species we don’t even know exist.”
According to Environmental activists like Christian Poirier, the program director of the NGO Amazon Watch, “the vast majority of these fires are human-lit.” Farmers deliberately set fires to clear land, a process known as “queimada.” Critics blame President Jair Bolsonaro who has vowed to open up the Amazon for farming and mining. Preliminary statistics from INPE showed an 88 percent jump in Amazon deforestation for June compared to the same month last year. As a result of the high levels of deforestation, Germany and Norway suspended donations to Brazil’s Amazon Fund, which works to curb deforestation.
Immediately after the story garnered international attention, the Bolsonaro government said the fires were caused by dry weather, wind, and heat. But according to INPE researcher Alberto Setzer, “there is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region… the dry season creates favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting the fire is the work of humans.” When asked about the topic on Wednesday, Bolsonaro baselessly accused NGO’s of burning down the Amazon to make his government look bad.
Since taking office, Bolsonaro has tried to loosen environmental regulations and replaced or fired top officials in the government’s environmental agencies. This includes his appointment of Ricardo Salles as Environment Minister. Salles, who previously served as Secretary of the Environment for the state of São Paulo allegedly received illegal payments from mining companies during his tenure. Soon after taking office, Bolsonaro fired the highly respected head of Brazil’s Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, Luciano Evaristo, and more recently dismissed the head of INPE, Ricardo Galvão, over the deforestation numbers published this month. Deforestation has already killed off 20 percent of the Amazon.