Brazil’s Amazon rainforest is the largest of its kind on earth. It covers 40 percent of South America, is home to more than 30 million people and countless mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles, most of them unique to the jungle. The Amazon is often referred to as the ‘lungs of the planet’ due to its vital role in oxygen production, which is carried around the world in weather systems. Now, however, the fires are pumping out alarming quantities of carbon into the world’s atmosphere.
The Amazon rainforest does have a man-made fire season, and each year sees an uptick in blazes around this time as farmers and cattle ranchers have long used fire to clear land and make it ready for use.
However, this year has seen a drastic increase in the volume of fires.
In the worst-affected Brazilian state of Amazonas, the peak day this month was 700 percent higher than the average for the same date over the past 15 years.
So what caused these intense fires?
The root of the fires is manmade and deliberate.
Most of the blazes are agricultural, either smallholders burning stubble after harvest, or farmers clearing forest for cropland.
Illegal land-grabbers also destroy trees so they can raise the value of the property they seize, already cleared to be used for farmland.
Most of the agricultural burn-offs are in deforested areas, but there are also fires in protected reserves, the number of which has increased drastically this year.
Blame is largely being placed at the foot of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.
Deforestation has rapidly accelerated during the first eight months of his rule, thanks to his policies weakening the environment agency, undermining conservation NGOs and promoting the opening of the Amazon to mining, farming and logging.
He recently fired the head of Brazil’s space research centre Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE) after data was published showing 72,843 fires in the Amazon this year alone, marking an 83 percent increase over the same period of 2018 and is the highest since records began in 2013.
However, the situation cannot be blamed solely on the right-wing Bolsonaro.
The agricultural lobby is powerful in Brazil and it has steadily eroded the protection system that was so successful from 2005-2014.
Deforestation crept up in the past five years under the previous presidents Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer.
And some of it is beyond the reach of politics at all – there are also huge fires in Bolivia, which has a leftwing populist president.
Scientists say the Amazon is approaching a tipping point, after which it will irreversibly degrade into a dry savannah.
At a time when the world needs billions more trees to absorb carbon and stabilise the climate, the planet is losing its biggest rainforest.
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