Amazon fires: Scientists blame 'corrupt governments and corporate interests'

Scientists say Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is probably right when he claims Brazil can't fight the Amazon fires itself.

But they're also pointing the finger at 'Captain Chainsaw' for fanning the flames, by encouraging renewed deforestation efforts in a bid to boost the Brazilian economy.

Fires happen in the Amazon every year around this time, but a social media campaign has put the spotlight on the damage they do to the biggest rainforest on Earth. 

Brazil's agency says the sheer number of blazes is at record levels, but they've only been measuring since 2013. Nasa says fire cover this August has actually been below average, and other measurements suggest the fire activity is about normal. 

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 17, 2019.
Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas. Photo credit: Reuters

Bolsonaro told reporters on Thursday (local time) there "aren't the resources" to fight the thousands of fires currently burning.

"This chaos has arrived," he said, going on to deflect the blame

"The Indians, do you want me to blame the Indians? Do you want me to blame the Martians?... Everyone is a suspect, but the biggest suspects are NGOs," he said, admitting he had no proof.

Deforestation - whether through logging or deliberately lit fires - used to claim nearly 30,000 square kilometres of rainforest a year. That dropped in the late 2000s, bottoming out at under 5000 square kilometres in 2012. But just weeks ago Ricardo Galvão, the director of Brazil's National Space and Research Institute, revealed satellite data showed deforestation was up 88 percent in June, compared with June 2018.

Bolsonaro called it "lies" and fired him

"In earlier decades Brazil was destroying an area of the Amazon rainforest nearly the size of Belgium each year," said Prof William Laurance at James Cook University's Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Sciences. 

"That cataclysmic loss has dropped since 2006 but is now dramatically rebounding. Most Amazon watchers attribute this to the recent election of President Jair Bolsonaro - the most aggressively pro-development and authoritarian leader in living memory, commonly known as the 'Tropical Trump'."

Dr Laurance said the fires were the direct result of his "broad-based war on the environment and on indigenous peoples and their lands in his efforts to spur unbridled mining, logging, dam and road development in the Amazon".

Jair Bolsonaro.
Jair Bolsonaro. Photo credit: Reuters

Paul Read of the Monash Sustainability Institute, an expert in bushfires and arson, said international leadership is needed to "preserve our planet and ultimately our peace".

"If nations are having to destroy a worldwide resource to maintain competitive advantage and run their economies, then we need to look at ways of paying them to be responsible custodians of that resource. The alternative is that we all go down together."

CSIRO research scientist Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project, said even if this year's fires aren't as bad as some reports make out, they still shouldn't be happening.

"Regardless who is right, the intensity of this year's fire season is not consistent with the expected decline in fires and emissions given the global efforts to reduce deforestation to halt greenhouse emissions and biodiversity loss. Previous administrations had major achievements in reducing deforestation but it seems those gains are being lost."

Though it's believed most of the fires are deliberately lit to clear land for farming, climate change would also be a contributor.

"Global warming makes it more likely that vegetation will burn," said Griffith University's Ian Lowe. "This should be a serious concern because the burning releases more carbon dioxide, reinforcing the warming rate."

"The very reason why climate predictions have a large range of forecasts is events like this can pump out more emissions whilst simultaneously destroying some of the few remaining areas of the world that protect us," added Dr Read, blaming "corrupt governments and corporate interests". 

"The combined effect is like stomping on the climate change accelerator."



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