The number of forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon last month rose 28 percent from July last year, satellite data showed on Saturday, fueling fears that the world’s biggest rainforest will again be devastated by fires this year.
The Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) identified 6,803 fires in the Amazon region last month, up from 5,318 the year before.
The figure is all the more troubling given that last year was already a devastating year for fires in the Amazon, triggering global outcry.
That has put pressure on Brazil, which holds about 60 percent of the Amazon basin region, to do more to protect the massive forest, seen as vital to containing the impact of climate change.
The fires are largely set to clear land illegally for farming, ranching and mining.
Advocates have accused Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right climate change skeptic, of encouraging the deforestation with calls to open up the rainforest to agriculture and industry.
Under international pressure, Bolsonaro has deployed the army to fight the fires and declared a moratorium on burning.
However, advocates have said that that does not go far enough to address the roots of the problem.
Fires rose 77 percent on indigenous lands and 50 percent on protected nature reserves from July last year, environmental group Greenpeace said, showing how illegal activities are increasingly encroaching on those areas.
On Thursday alone, satellites detected 1,007 fires in the Amazon, INPE said.
That was the worst single day for fires in the month of July since 2005, Greenpeace said.
“More than 1,000 fires in a single day is a 15-year record and shows the government’s strategy of media-spectacle operations is not working on the ground,” Greenpeace spokesman Romulo Batista said in a statement.
“On paper, the fire moratorium prohibits burning, but it only works if there is also a response on the ground, with more patrols. Criminals aren’t known for obeying the law,” he said.
Instead, the Bolsonaro administration has slashed the budget, staff and programs of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources.
“Everything that was working was thrown out the window,” Erika Berenguer, an Amazon ecologist at Oxford and Lancaster Universities, told reporters.
Fire season in the Amazon typically runs from June to October.
However, fires are just part of the deforestation picture.
The rest of the year, ranchers, farmers, miners and land speculators are clearing forest and preparing to burn it.
The first six months of this year were the worst on record for deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, with 3,069km2 cleared, according to INPE data — an area bigger than the country of Luxembourg.
If a significant portion of those felled trees burn this year, the result could be catastrophic, experts have said.
“I think August will be the make-or-break month,” Berenguer said.
Last year, the number of fires surged nearly 200 percent year-on-year in August, to 30,900, sending a thick haze of black smoke all the way to Sao Paulo, thousands of kilometers away, and causing worldwide alarm.
The number of fires has fallen since then, under increased scrutiny and pressure — including from companies and investors worried about the impact on Brazil’s brand.
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