Humans likely to blame for catastrophic Amazon fires

The world was horrified after footage emerged of uncontrolled fires blazing in the Amazon rainforest.

Now environmental organisations and researchers say the blazes were most likely set by humans who wanted to clear and use the land for business purposes.

Amazon Watch, a non-profit organisation that works to protect the rainforest, said farmers had been setting forests ablaze to create pastures, emboldened by Brazil’s conservative pro-business government.

“The unprecedented fires ravaging the Amazon are an international tragedy and a dangerous contribution to climate chaos,” said Christian Poirier, the organisation’s program director.

He said the flames were “directly related” to Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, a climate sceptic who in the past has been criticised for claiming that environmental protections hinder the South American country’s economic growth.

“This devastation is directly related to President Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental rhetoric, which erroneously frames forest protections and human rights as impediments to Brazil’s economic growth,” said Mr Poirier.

He also said Mr Bolsonaro’s message allowed farmers and ranchers “to commit arson with wanton impunity”.

Mr Poirier said it would be unusual for a humid rainforest like the Amazon to easily catch fire like bushland in Australia, even during dry months.

“The vast majority of these fires are human-lit,” he said. He said farmers and ranches had long used fire to clear land, which was the most likely cause of the unusually large number of fires burning in the rainforest.

Fires have been burning in the Amazon rainforest for the past three weeks. They garnered international attention after chilling images showed Sao Paulo plunged into darkness in the middle of the afternoon.

“The particulate matter, coming from the smoke produced by these large wildfires that are happening in Bolivia, coupled with the cold, humid air that is off the coast of São Paulo, caused the darkness,” Franco Vilela, a meteorologist at Inmet, told Globo.

Brazil’s space research centre, National Institute for Space Research (INPE), said the number of fires detected in the Amazon this year so far had reached 72,843 — an 83 per cent increase on last year and the highest since records began in 2013.

According to the INPE, more than one-and-a-half soccer fields’ worth of Amazon rainforest are being destroyed every minute.

The Amazon is often referred to as the planet’s lungs, producing 20 per cent of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. As the largest rainforest on the planet, it is considered a vital instrument in slowing global warming.

The fires are so prominent they can now be seen from space, with satellites tracking a record number of wildfires burning across the Brazilian rainforest.

Mr Bolsonaro, a well-known climate change sceptic, has previously sparked controversy by making campaign promises to restore Brazil’s economy by exploring the Amazon’s economic potential.

Just weeks ago, he fired the director of the INPE following an argument between the pair about deforestation.

Environmental activists have argued his pro-business stance may have emboldened farmers and miners to seize control of a growing portion of Amazon land.

Jair Bolsonaro, a well-known climate sceptic, has been slammed by environmental activists in the wake of the fires.
Jair Bolsonaro, a well-known climate sceptic, has been slammed by environmental activists in the wake of the fires.Source:AP
Mr Bolsonaro brushed off complaints, saying it was the “season of the queimada” when farmers use fire to clear land.

“I used to be called Captain Chainsaw. Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame,” he was quoted by Reuters as saying.

The conservative leader has in turn blamed non-governmental organisations for setting fires in the Amazon to damage his government’s image after he cut their funding.

Environment and climate experts disputed his unfounded claim as a “smoke screen” to hide the dismantling of protections for the world’s largest tropical rainforest and said farmers clearing land was the cause of a surge in forest fires.

“Everything indicates” that NGOs are going to the Amazon to “set fire” to the forest, Mr Bolsonaro said in a Facebook Live broadcast. When asked if he had evidence to back up his claims, he said he had “no written plan”, adding “that’s not how it’s done”.

The former army captain turned politician said the slashing of NGO funding by his government could be a motive.

“Crime exists,” he said. “These people are missing the money.”

His remarks were decried as “sick” and “pitiful” by environmental activists in Brazil.

“This is a sick statement, a pitiful statement,” said Marcio Astrini, Greenpeace Brazil’s public policy co-ordinator. “Increased deforestation and burning are the result of his anti-environmental policy.”