Brazil is finally taking legislative action to prevent further fires in the Amazon, but is it too little too late?
President Jair Bolsonaro has signed an order banning all land clearance fires for at least 60 days.
There are certain exceptions to the decree, such as fires authorized by environmental authorities for reasons relating to plant health, land clearing used to prevent the spread of wildfires, and fires used in traditional agriculture practices by indigenous people. Although the new decree won’t do much to stop illegal fires, it hopes to curtail the leading force behind the recent fires in the Amazon: deforestation.
A senior scientist from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, which watches over and monitors the Amazon using satellites, told CNN that humans had started 99 percent of the fires on purpose or accidentally. In many of these instances, fire is used as a tool to clear land for the construction of infrastructure, new mines, or farmland.
While deforestation in the Amazon is nothing new – the number of fires in Brazil was considerably higher in the early 2000s – the future of the Amazon has been a little bleaker under the presidency of far-right populist leader Jair Bolsonaro. With known ties to big agribusiness and a goal of making Brazil an economic superpower, Bolsonaro has consistently expressed the desire to open up the Amazon to business interests. To achieve this, the administration has already loosened many environmental regulations and protections.
By no coincidence, the Amazon has undergone a surge in deforestation this past year. Over 2,254 square kilometers (870 square miles) of Amazon rainforest were chopped down in Brazil during July 2019 alone, a 278 percent increase on the same period in 2018.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro's new fire-banning decree coincides with further attacks on the nation’s environment bodies. Bolsonaro has made numerous hostile gestures towards the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the country's public environment body, in the past and the recent forest fires have done little to dampen this attitude.
With the forest fires still blazing, IBAMA recently accused the president of undermining the agency charged with protecting the rainforest, according to a report by Reuters. As just one example, new restrictions mean that agencies can’t destroy heavy equipment found at the scene of environmental crimes.
Hundreds of staff working at Brazil’s numerous environmental agencies have also signed an open letter warning that their work has been hampered by President Bolsonaro, citing budget cuts, staff reductions, political interference, and the loosening of environmental regulations.
In light of this, some are skeptical about whether the new ban on land-clearing fires will accomplish much. Tasso Azevedo, who runs the deforestation-monitoring group MapBiomas, has written an article for the Rio-based newspaper O Globo arguing "the worse of the fires is yet to come."