SAO PAULO/RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is facing growing criticism over rampant destruction of the Amazon, where ever more land is being cleared and the number of forest fires have surged.
Nearly 73,000 fires were recorded between January and August, compared with 39,759 in the first eight months of 2018, according to the embattled National Institute for Space Research. That is the highest number for any year since 2013 and follows two years of declines.
“What we are seeing is a consequence of the increase in deforestation,” said Ricardo Mello of the WWF conservation group’s Amazon Program.
Forest fires tend to intensify during the dry season as land is burned to clear space for crops or grazing. The season usually ends in late October or early November.
Satellite images show smoke from the region reaching across the continent to the Atlantic coast and Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Smoke from the fires has even caused a commercial flight to be diverted.
Amid global concern about the raging fires in the Amazon, Norway has joined Germany in halting subsidies for protecting the Amazon, accusing Brazil of turning its back on the fight against deforestation.
Activists say the president’s anti-environment rhetoric has emboldened loggers, miners and farmers.
The threat to “the lungs of the planet” has ignited a bitter dispute about who is to blame during the tenure of Bolsonaro, who has described Brazil’s rainforest protections as an obstacle to economic development.
On Thursday, he traded jabs with French President Emmanuel Macron over the fires.
Macron called the wildfires an international crisis and said the leaders of the Group of Seven nations should hold urgent discussions about them at their summit in France this weekend.
“Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest — the lungs which produces 20 percent of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire,” Macron tweeted.
Bolsonaro fired back with his own tweet: “I regret that Macron seeks to make personal political gains in an internal matter for Brazil and other Amazonian countries. The sensationalist tone he used does nothing to solve the problem.”
Onyx Lorenzoni, the president’s chief of staff, earlier in the day accused European countries of exaggerating environmental problems in Brazil in order to disrupt its commercial interests. “There is deforestation in Brazil, yes, but not at the rate and level that they say,” said Lorenzoni, according to the Brazilian news site globo.com.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted: “In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity. The Amazon must be protected.”
Federal prosecutors in Brazil’s Amazon region have launched investigations of increasing deforestation, according to local media. The prosecutors plan to probe possible negligence by the national government in the enforcement of environmental codes.
Bolivia is also struggling to contain big fires, many believed to have been set by farmers clearing land for cultivation.
Former Brazilian environment minister and presidential candidate Marina Silva on Thursday called the wildfires a “crime against humanity” and blamed current policies for fueling the blazes.
“The whole world is watching a situation that is out of control in terms of deforestation and fires in Brazil’s Amazon,” Silva told a conference in Bogota.
“It’s a situation I regard to be a crime against the homeland, a crime against humanity,” said Silva, a former senator. “Throughout Brazil’s history we have had difficult situations, but this is the first time we have a situation that was practically and officially fueled by the government,” she added.
Bolsonaro, whose administration complains it is being targeted in smear campaign by critics, said Wednesday there is a “very strong” indication that nongovernmental groups could be setting blazes in retaliation for losing state funds under his administration. He did not provide any evidence.
Bolsonaro, who won election last year, also accused media organizations of exploiting the fires to undermine his government.
“Most of the media want Brazil to end up like Venezuela,” he said, referring to political and economic turbulence in the neighboring country.
London-based Amnesty International blamed the Brazilian government for the fires. The rights group this year documented illegal land invasions and arson attacks near indigenous territories in the Amazon, including Rondonia state, where many fires are raging, said Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty’s secretary-general.
“Instead of spreading outrageous lies or denying the scale of deforestation taking place, we urge the president to take immediate action to halt the progress of these fires,” Naidoo said.
The WWF also challenged Bolsonaro’s allegation about NGOs, saying it diverts “the focus of attention from what really matters: the well-being of nature and the people of the Amazon.”
Brazil contains about 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, whose degradation could have severe consequences for global climate and rainfall. Bolsonaro, who wants to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms, won office after channeling outrage over the corruption scandals of the former government.
Filipe Martins, an adviser to Bolsonaro, said on Twitter that the Brazilian government is committed to fighting illegal deforestation and that many other countries are causing environmental damage.
The Amazon will be saved by Brazil and not by “the empty, hysterical and misleading rhetoric of the mainstream media, transnational bureaucrats and NGOs,” Martins said.
Argentine Environment Minister Sergio Bergman, speaking at a U.N. workshop on climate change in Brazil’s northern state of Bahia, appealed for people to overcome political or ideological divisions to protect the environment. “We all, in a way, understand that it is not possible to keep using natural resources without limits,” Bergman said.