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Record number of wildfires are burning in the Amazon and there is no end in sight

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By Tatiana Freitas and David Biller
Bloomberg News

Brazil’s Amazon is burning at a record rate, according to data from the National Institute of Space Research that intensified domestic and international scrutiny of President Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policies.

INPE, as the institute is known, recorded an 84% increase in fires in Brazil between 2018 and 2019, with well over half taking place in the Amazon rainforest. It was the highest level since records began 7 years ago. Speaking to reporters in Brasilia on Wednesday, the president said that NGOs could be behind the fires, in an attempt to discredit him and to draw attention to the cuts in their funding. He offered no evidence for his claim.

Bolsonaro has come under intense pressure to contain the spread of the record number of fires currently burning through the world’s largest rainforest, many of them set by loggers incentivized by his government. Much of the pressure stems from the apocalyptic darkness that descended on the megalopolis of Sao Paulo on Monday afternoon, unnerving locals and triggering a fierce debate between meteorologists and climatologists over its exact cause. Some researchers argued the hazy gloom was a result of a combination of a cold front over the city coupled with smoke from fires in the Amazon, more than 1,000 miles away. The hashtag #PrayforAmazonia has dominated social media in Brazil over the past few days.

For those living in the Amazon, the smoke is intense. Moises Fernandes, an agronomist and consultant in the state of Rondonia said that it’s been several days since he’s been able to see the river that lies just 450 meters (less than half a mile) away from his apartment.

The fires are not in the interests of large-scale landowners who own cattle that need to graze, and are mainly caused by smallholders in the region to recover their fields. “The small-scale producer is the one burning,” he said. “He burns because he doesn’t have access to technology, means of production, technical assistance so he winds up doing that.”

Fernandes says that oversight has decreased over recent years but the problem is not new, and not limited to this government.

“It’s normal to see fires at the end of the dry season,” Celso Oliveira, a meteorologist from Somar Meteorologia in Sao Paulo, said, adding that many parts of the country had gone three to six months without rain. “But there are also many fires caused by people clearing pasture and planting soybeans. There’s a lot of pressure on the Amazon region.”

Oliveira, however, dismissed suggestions that the eerie darkness that descended on Brazil’s most populous city had anything to do with the fires in the Amazon, pointing to official data showing good air quality in the area. “The gloom has no relation to the smoke, it happened because of the enormity of the clouds,” he said.

Regardless of the exact cause of Monday’s strange weather, the event has drawn attention to Bolsonaro’s environmental policies. The president has spoken repeatedly of his desire to develop the Amazon economically and integrate the indigenous people living there into contemporary Brazilian society.

He also recently fired the head of INPE, Ricardo Galvao, after dismissing data showing an 88% rise in deforestation between June 2018 and June 2019 as “lies”. Galvao’s replacement said that climate change “is not my thing”.

The president recently dismissed European leaders’ concerns about his government’s environmental policies after Norway followed Germany and froze millions of dollars in financial aid to an Amazon rainforest preservation fund.

(Simone Iglesias, Brian K. Sullivan and Murilo Fagundes contributed to this report.)

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(Freitas reported from Sao Paulo and Biller from Rio de Janeiro)

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©2019 Bloomberg News

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