SÃO PAULO — Brazil’s government has offered up several explanations for the record number of fires that have been burning through the Amazon rainforest for weeks, including a theory from the country’s president that environmental NGOs could have set the blazes to embarrass him.
But scientific data and experts point out that — counter to recent claims from the far-right government’s environment minister — 2019 isn’t actually a year of extreme drought. If that were the case, the number of forest fires would actually be double what we’re seeing today.
According to data from the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), there’s been a 70% increase in fires in the rainforest this year compared to the same time last August, during the year’s most intense period of drought. And compared to 2016, the year when the drought was most severe overall, there was a 23% growth in fires this year, according to IPAM’s data.
“What our analysis shows is that the increase in the number of outbreaks of fire is strictly associated with the amount of deforestation that has occurred in the Amazon,” IPAM’s scientific director, Ane Alencar, told BuzzFeed News.
Fire season in the Amazon tends to occur every year, with the most severe incidents taking place between August and October. But unlike the Cerrado, Brazil’s tropical grasslands, the Amazon’s thickly packed vegetation — which traps moisture and keeps the rainforest from drying out — makes it very difficult to have an outbreak of fires that aren’t caused by humans.
The risk of fires in the region is usually worse during El Niño years when vegetation tends to be extra dry — but 2019 was not one of those years. Brazil’s Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles, who last year said that climate change was a “secondary” concern for him, claimed on Twitter that “dry weather, wind and heat” had caused the fires to increase.
Instead, according to IPAM, 99% of the fires in the Amazon were likely set by humans.
Alencar said the number of fires seen this year in the absence of a major drought is “a dizzying increase. If the drought were extreme, it would have doubled.”
“Spontaneous combustion can occur in the Cerrado, in very dry times, with lightning. Not in the Amazon. Because of its moisture characteristics, it acts naturally as a fire barrier,” she continued.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro came into office earlier this year pledging to make developing land in the Amazon — including logging and clearing the jungle to make way for farmland — easier than ever. But Alencar noted that 95% of the deforestation is illegal, and in 35% of cases, the burning occurs in areas either controlled by the federal government or that are entirely unregistered.
Meanwhile, the fires are threatening to increase the rate of climate change — the Amazon is one of the largest repositories of carbon dioxide on the planet. In these real-time satellite images from the weather forecast site Windy, you can actually see the concentrations of carbon dioxide: the redder the area, the higher the concentration of CO2 released from the fires.
“We are only at the beginning of the fire season,” Alencar added. “What’s still coming could be very scary, since we’re still in the middle of August.”
Just as concerning: The number of fires overall has doubled in 2019. According to satellite monitoring from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which provides IPAM with its data, there were 53,364 fires in the Amazon between January and this Wednesday. By comparison, 26,500 fires burned during the same period last year.
As of Wednesday, there were 94 fires burning inside protected areas in both the states containing the Amazon and the rest of the country. According to INPE, three states and seven national areas are currently affected by the fires.
Bolsonaro, in the meantime, in addition to raising suspicion about NGOs, said Wednesday that there are governors in the region who are not fighting the fires.
“There is a governor who I don’t want to name who is colluding with what is happening and puts the blame on the government,” he said. “There are states in the northern region, which I don’t want to mention, that the governor is not moving to help fight fires.”
Bolsonaro did not provide evidence to back his claims.
This post was translated from Portuguese.