The fires that are destroying large areas of the Amazon rainforest have continued to rage even as the Brazilian army has spread out across the country in attempts to put them out.
However, July and August are the region’s driest months, and the reactions of Brazil’s right-wing government, at the helm of the country since January this year, have not helped.
So far, almost 73,000 fires have been detected by Brazil’s space research centre. Although the fires started a month ago in the Amazon Basin, a third of which is in Brazil, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro only took action last week when black clouds covered the sky above the city of Sao Paolo, 2,700 km away from the Amazon Basin.
Bolsonaro has accused non-governmental organisations of causing the Amazon fires after losing money they used to receive from the government in the form of funding.
The Brazilian government has cut $23 billion of the funding dedicated to Amazon protection, and during his election campaign Bolsonaro vowed to explore ways in which the Amazon could be exploited for economic benefits.
Newspapers published in Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia have said that the Amazon wildfires are an outcome of Bolsonaro’s reducing funding for the rainforest’s protection.
For decades, farmers and herders have been burning thousands of hectares of the world’s largest rainforest to use the space to raise cattle and plant soybeans.
Brazil is the world’s biggest exporter of beef, with production increasing 10 fold from 1997 to 2016 and reaching more than 1.6 million tons in 2018, approximately 20 per cent of world trade in beef.
Cattle ranching has taken up 66 per cent of the area deforested in the past few years, while soy farms that export beans to China and other countries make up 6.5 per cent of the land that has been deliberately deforested.
Soy farming has become a major source of income in Brazil, with the country being the world’s largest producer and exporter of soybeans in 2018 at 84 million tons, up 22 per cent on the year before, according to figures from Brazil’s Economy Ministry.
The Amazon fires and deforestation decreased dramatically during the rule of former president Lula da Silva (2003-2011) and his successor Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) thanks to resolutions adopted in 2004-05.
This year’s Amazon fires are the largest ever seen since national statistics started. The fires saw an 84 per cent increase this year on the same period last year.
The 2016 fires recorded a similar figure to today’s, with 70,000 fires being recorded in the Amazon three years ago, but they were caused by dry weather. This year’s weather has not been dry, leading to the conclusion that the fires were man-made.
Environmental organisations such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund believe that the Brazilian government has been at fault because of its late reaction to the fires and its encouragement of herders and farmers to indulge in illegal practices.
Bolsonaro’s supporters have argued that the rainforest has lost only 20 per cent of its size since the Latin American continent was discovered in the early 16th century. Much of the deforested lands can be reforested, they say.
But wildlife and ecosystems specialists believe the current deforestation rate may eliminate the Amazon’s eastern and southern areas in 30 years, and the rainforest may lose between 40 and 60 per cent of its size if Brazil remains lax about enforcing the 2004-05 resolutions.
Making up for the deforested areas could take up to 40 years, the environmental specialists argue, with concerns being expressed about the “world’s lungs” that produce 20 per cent of the planet’s oxygen and house a quarter of its biodiversity.
The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, an international agency, has confirmed that the Amazon rainforest fires have released 228 megatons of carbon dioxide.
There has been public anger in Brazil about the fires in the Amazon, which covers 40 per cent of the continent and spreads across Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. The international community has been pressing for action, with Bolsonaro and French President Emmanuel Macron in particular exchanging angry comments.
Macron threatened to cancel the free-trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur, a trade bloc including Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. His threat is adding to pressure on Bolsonaro from his Latin American counterparts.
The regional and international pressure will strengthen the opposition against Bolsonaro and may add the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, a million people out of Brazil’s 200 million population, to his opponents, which already include the Brazilian working classes and non-white communities which feel they are being discriminated against.
Such groups have been disappointed by his performance as president thus far, and they constitute swing voters who can be make-or-break elements for Brazilian politicians.
Macron raised the subject of the Amazon fires at this week’s G7 Summit meeting in France, and German chancellor Angela Merkel vowed her country would help restore the deforested lands. US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also promised help to put out the fires.
For the time being, however, the fires continue to burn, eating up not only the Brazilian rainforest but also the credit of some of the country’s politicians.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.