SAO PAULO – The forest fires burning in Amazonia and the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, have been spreading quickly during the first nine months of 2020, although Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro continues to deny that there is any problem and to accuse non-governmental organizations and local indigenous peoples of environmental crimes.
The number of fires in the Pantanal, which is shared by Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, has tripled between January and September this year from 6,055 to 18,260, according to figures prepared by the state-run National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
The fires in the wetland region, declared to be a United Nations World Heritage Site and with a land area the size of Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal and The Netherlands combined, have destroyed the most acreage since 1998, when figures began to be kept.
The blazes have also been spreading through Brazil’s tropical jungles so far this year, despite the commitment expressed by the government to deal with the issue amid heavy international pressure after images of the destruction galvanized the world in 2019.
In Amazonia, the number of fires increased by 13.9 percent in the first nine months of 2020 to 76,030, a situation ecologists attribute in part to the growing deforestation in what is considered to be the “green lung” of the planet given that the jungle absorbs a huge amount of carbon dioxide that otherwise would heat the earth even more than is currently the case.
In September alone, Amazon fires increased 60 percent over the same month a year ago, while in the Pantanal they increased by 180 percent, setting an historic record.
The flames have spread in Brazil’s two main biomas despite the decision by the national government to prohibit – starting on July 16 and lasting for a 60-day period – the use of fire to prepare the land for planting.
Christine Mazzetti of Greenpeace said Thursday that “Brazil is in flames. From the Amazon to the Pantanal, the environmental heritage of all Brazilians is being reduced to ashes,” adding that “This is a consequence of the policy of the Bolsonaro government, which despite the predictions of drought in the Pantanal, has not used the necessary means of fire protection.”
The figures released on Thursday run counter to Bolsonaro’s discourse, with the Brazilian leader having insisted on minimizing the number of fires in the country and blaming NGOs and local Indians for destroying the forests.
The ultrarightist president has said before the UN that his government is the victim of a “brutal campaign” of “fake news” on the part of potential competitors in the global markets at a time when criticism of his environmental policy from investors and European countries is growing.
Bolsonaro, a reserve army captain, on Wednesday once again asserted Brazil’s sovereignty over the planet’s largest tropical forest and “firmly (condemned) international greed vis-a-vis our coveted Amazon region.”
The deterioration of the Amazon region has increased pressure on Brasilia and the issue this week figured in the election debate in the US between President Donald Trump, who is running for reelection and an ally of Bolsonaro, and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who served as vice president for eight years under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
At one point in the faceoff, Biden alluded to the fires in the Amazon, saying that Brazil’s tropical forest is being devastated and offered to join with other countries to provide $20 billion for the South American giant to “stop tearing down” the Amazon and threatening “significant economic consequences” if it did not.
Bolsonaro responded harshly to Biden’s suggestion, calling it “pathetic” and adding that “some don’t understand that Brazil has changed” and that the country’s sovereignty “is non-negotiable.”
Besides the warning by Biden, whose potential victory in the Nov. 3 election would almost inevitably weaken US-Brazilian relations, the French government recently announced that it will continue to reject the trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur – which includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay – due to environmental problems.