Brazil is finally taking action to prevent fires from doing more damage to the Amazon, but is it too little too late?
President Jair Bolsonaro, who has faced intense criticism at home and abroad for failing to protect the rainforest, has signed an order banning all land clearance fires for 60 days in response to a massive increase in the number of fires in the Amazon rainforest.
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.
Prosecutors have been investigating allegations that some of the fires were triggered by the illegal clearing of land and the decree now bans setting fires for this purpose across the entire country.
Bolsonaro has accepted Chile’s offer of four planes to fight the fires, the most in Brazil since 2010 – but he has refused a G7 offer of $22m (£18m) following a spat with French President Emmanuel Macron.
The government says it has deployed 44,000 soldiers to seven states to combat the fires. That came after Mr Bolsonaro last week said the authorities did not have the resources to fight the blazes.
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.
It is no coincidence that 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.
Bolsonaro, who took office in January, has faced international criticism for his response to the fires, especially after he initially rejected a $22 million pledge from nations attending the G7 summit in France.
According to the New York Times, Bolsonaro’s rejection was due to a feud with French President Emmanuel Macron, whom Bolsonaro targeted in an angry Twitter thread over apparent insults and an implication that Brazil doesn’t have sovereignty over the Amazon. He later said he would reconsider accepting the money if Macron would “withdraw his words.”
Brazil later accepted $12 million in aid from Britain, and help from Chile in the form of four aircraft’s, according to Reuters.
The Associated Press reported that Bolsonaro had ordered a military operation to help fight the fires.
“The protection of the forest is our duty,” the president said. “We are aware of that and will act to combat deforestation and criminal activities that put people at risk in the Amazon. We are a government of zero tolerance for crime, and in the environmental field it will not be different.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of government workers signed a letter this week blaming Bolsonaro for the increase in fires this year, and warning that if nothing changed, Brazil’s environmental protection agency would “collapse,” according to the Times.
The Amazon spans eight countries and is often referred to as “the planet’s lungs,” as it produces 20 percent of Earth’s oxygen. The onslaught of fire is threatening wildlife and Earth’s oxygen in a disaster that experts are now saying will be felt around the world, including in the Midwest region of the U.S. as weather patterns shift.