What You Need To Know About The Fires In The Amazon Rainforest

Natural-color image of smoke and fires in several states within Brazil including Amazonas, Mato Grosso, and Rondônia taken by NOAA/NASA's Suomi NPP satellite. NASA/NOAA

Over 39,000 fires have blazed in the Amazon rainforest in this year's dry season so far. According to Brazil's National Institute of Space Research, who watch over the rainforest using satellites, that's a 77 percent increase from the same period (January to mid-August) last year. 

The images of the fire have sparked outrage on social media and concern among the international community – and for good reason. The Amazon is one of the most important biomes on our planet, playing a key role in maintaining natural processes on Earth. Along with being home to some 20 million indigenous people, it also holds the largest collection of living plants and animal species in the world.

While this year’s fires have gathered a lot of deserved attention, thousands and thousands of fires are deliberately lit in the Amazon every year during the dry season, typically between July and October or November, to maintain pastures and make way for more farming land.

On August 16, NASA reported that the total fire activity in the Amazon basin so far in 2019 was not totally unexpected given recent trends, noting that "across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years." Although the states of Amazonas and Rondônia have experienced a higher number of fires this year, regions such as Mato Grosso and Pará have actually had a below-average number of fires.

It’s also been noted that many of the photographs and videos purported to be of the fires on social media are years old or not in Brazil. For example, the photograph tweeted by French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday about this year's fires was taken by photojournalist Loren McIntyre who died in 2003.

Fire forecast on August 20, 2019, from the European Union's Copernicus satellite. Copernicus EU

That said, this year’s fires are especially worrisome. One of the reasons for the elevated concern is that President Jair Bolsonaro is now in the driving seat. Dubbed “Captain Chainsaw” by his adversaries, the right-wing populist president has close political ties to agribusiness and has already weakened many environmental regulations. By no coincidence, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon this year has shot up 278 percent compared to the same period in 2018.

This lax attitude towards the environment has led to world leaders and numerous NGOs pointing the blame for the recent spate of fires at the Bolsonaro administration.

“Those who destroy the Amazon and let deforestation continue unabated are encouraged in doing so by the Bolsonaro government’s actions and policies. Since taking office, the current government has been systematically dismantling Brazil’s environmental policy,” Danicley Aguiar of Greenpeace Brazil said in a statement.

President Macron called the fires an “international crisis” and urged world leaders to discuss the issue at the G7 Summit this weekend. However, considering Brazil is not a G7 member and not invited to the summit, this idea didn’t fly too well with Bolsonaro.

“The French President’s suggestion that Amazonian issues be discussed at the G7 without the participation of the countries of the region evokes a misplaced colonialist mindset in the 21st century,” tweeted Bolsonaro.

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