In case you haven’t already heard, the Amazon is on fire. In fact, according to satellite data from the National Institute for Space Research (also known as INPE), there have been 72,843 fires in Brazil this year, over half of which have occurred in the Amazon. Compared to records from last year, that’s an 84% increase. But what’s behind the crisis?
While your first thought might jump to climate change as the culprit, scientists and environmental activists say that the majority of fires are started intentionally (and illegally) by farmers and cattle ranchers to clear land for crops and livestock. The result is that more than 1½ soccer fields of Amazon rainforest are being destroyed every single minute.
Although not driven by climate change, the fires will likely have devastating impacts on the climate. The Amazon produces 20% of the oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere while also acting as a huge carbon sink, responsible for sequestering unimaginable amounts of carbon dioxide. If the rainforest were to become a dry savannah, not only would it expel the millions of species living in its bounds, but it would also become a source of carbon and increase CO2 emissions globally.
"There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average," commented IPNE researcher Alberto Setzer to Reuters. "The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident."
INPE isn’t the only institution following the fires. The European Union's satellite program, Copernicus, has also published a map that illustrates how far the smoke has spread from the fires. Along with reports that the smoke has reached Sao Paulo, over 1,700 miles away, the map shows smoke along all of Brazil to the east Atlantic coast and into neighboring Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay.
Behind the fires are, of course, politics. With the election of new president Jair Bolsonaro, who has been criticized for his anti-environment regulations, particularly his stance that the country should restore the economy by opening up the Amazon’s economic potential, the forests and those people live in them have been under extreme threat. According to Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the environmental nonprofit organization Observatorio do Clima (Climate Observatory), Bolsanaro’s politics “may have emboldened loggers, farmers and miners to seize control of a growing area of Amazon land.”
Brazil's environmental enforcement agency has seen its budget cut by $23 million. In a statement, Bolsanaro put the blame for the fires on NGOs, saying that perhaps they are trying to draw international criticism to his government.