The Amazon Has Faced More Than 500 Major Fires Between May And August

Smoke rises from an illegally lit fire in a section of Amazon rainforest, south of Novo Progresso in Para state, Brazil, on August 15, 2020.  (Photo: Carl De Souza, Getty Images)
Smoke rises from an illegally lit fire in a section of Amazon rainforest, south of Novo Progresso in Para state, Brazil, on August 15, 2020. (Photo: Carl De Souza, Getty Images)

Major fires in the Brazilian Amazon are being set at an unprecedented rate. Between May 28 and Aug. 25, 2020, more than 500 major forest fires blazed across roughly 369,073 hectares, new satellite data from the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) shows. That’s on par with the inferno that’s consumed California this month.

MAAP defines fires’ severity based on their aerosol index, a measure of the presence of levels of particles of smoke and ash in the air. Shockingly, nearly half of these forest fires took place in just the past two weeks. The largest of the documented blazes was one in Northern Brazil on August 17. That single fire alone burned nearly 10,361 hectares of land.

Unlike the ones currently scorching California, these forest fires weren’t lit by lightning. Instead, they were set by people, mostly people looking to clear land for mining, cattle ranching, and soybean farming industries. And most of this clearing is conducted illegally, by actors with ties to a years-old criminal network in the country.

“Deforestation today has very strong ties to organised crime,” Claudio Angelo, head of communications at Brazil’s Climate Observatory, said in an email.

The rate of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon has surged under the country’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. Amid criticism, last month, Bolsonaro instated a four-month ban on lighting up the country’s rainforest, and in May, he sent military troops to combat deforestation.

But environmental activists have dismissed these moves as a public relations stunt, merely used to provide cover for his scheme of opening even more of the Amazon up to businesses. Between March and May, Bolsonaro’s administration issued 195 ordinances and decrees to dismantle Brazil’s environmental protections.

This rampant deforestation is devastating the Brazilian Amazon’s ecosystems, which are some of the most biodiverse anywhere in the world. It’s also destroying the land which local Indigenous communities have rights to — and depend on to live.

Recent research from Human Rights Watch also shows that the fires are polluting air that millions of people breathe, since the smoke they create is filled with particulate matter. The report estimates that in 2019, fires caused 2,195 hospitalisations due to respiratory illness, affecting nearly 500 infants under 1 year old, and more than 1,000 people over the age of 60.

For those of us far from Brazil, these fires also have terrible consequences because they’re destroying one of the world’s most important carbon sinks. The rainforests’ trees are losing their ability to sequester carbon, and the ones that catch flame are releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Within just 15 years, the Amazon could actually begin emitting more carbon than it breathes in, further worsening the climate crisis.

Even if this deforestation stopped now, it’s not clear that the Amazon could fully recover from all of this damage. But if leaders wanted to, they could begin to remedy the situation right now, reinstating environmental protections, and stopping rampant corporate crime. Piles of research also show that granting more of Brazil’s Indigenous communities full property rights to tribal lands would massively help curb deforestation — and it’s a massively important move for human rights to boot. The solutions are clear. Now all we need is a little political will and a lot less fuckery from the Bolsonaro administration.