RIO DE JANEIRO – The number of forest fires in Brazil’s Amazon region increased by 30 percent last year, from 68,345 in 2018 to 89,178 in 2019, but the situation was not as serious as in 2017, when a record 107,439 fires were recorded, the government reported Wednesday.
According to a study released by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), 2019 was the year with the third-largest number of forest fires in Amazonia since the entity began keeping a tally of fires with the aid of satellite imagery in 1998.
The number of fires in the tropical forest considered to be the world’s “green lung” in 2019 was 17 percent below the 2017 total and was also below the total for 2010 (106,438 fires).
As is currently occurring in Australia, the jump in the number of fires in Brazil’s huge tropical forest region last August sparked international alarm.
Images of the fires burning huge swaths of vegetation were seen around the world and caused a wave of indignation in the international community and among non-governmental organizations, who accused Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro of bearing much of the blame for the blazes because of his anti-environmentalist rhetoric.
The ultrarightist leader is in favor of exploiting the natural resources of the region and on numerous occasions has condemned the “ecological extremism” of the NGO community.
The INPE figures, however, show that after the hike in fires in August, the situation began improving in September.
According to INPE, Brazil’s Amazon region last August registered 30,901 fires, a figure almost three times that for the same month in 2018 and the worst for the month in the last decade, all of this resulting from the drought, the high temperatures and – in large part – deforestation caused by man.
In September 2019, however, the number of fires fell by 19.66 percent in comparison with the same month the year before, from 24,803 new fires to 19,925.
To deal with the fires and the criticism received from around the world, including from presidents of other nations such as France’s Emmanuel Macron, Bolsonaro in August authorized the Brazilian armed forces to participate in firefighting tasks and in fighting environmental crimes in the Amazon.
As an initial measure, Bolsonaro dispatched thousands of troops to the Amazon region to help firefighters and police deal with the fires and other matters.
Despite the fact that Bolsonaro attributed the increase in the number of fires to the regular August-September drought in the Amazon, experts warned that the dry season in the region in 2019 was not as dry as it had been in 2018 and that the increase in fires could not be attributed exclusively to the climate.
“The great majority of those fires were caused by human action,” said expert Carlos Nobre, a researcher with the University of Sao Paulo and one of Brazil’s key authorities on the Amazon region.
“Our agriculture uses fire as the main tool for cleansing (the earth). Normally, 85 percent of the fires are caused by farmers, but in some areas the fires get out of control and move into cultivated areas and forested areas,” he said.