Brazil: Concerns grow over burning Amazon as probe launched

Brazil's Bolsonaro says government lacks the resources to fight record number of fires burning in the Amazon rainforest.

    A tract of Amazon jungle is seen burning as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Iranduba, Amazonas state, Brazil [Bruno Kelly/Reuters]
    A tract of Amazon jungle is seen burning as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Iranduba, Amazonas state, Brazil [Bruno Kelly/Reuters]

    Federal prosecutors in Brazil said on Thursday they will investigate a spike in deforestation and wildfires raging in the Amazon state of Para to determine whether there has been reduced monitoring and enforcement of environmental protections.

    The investigation announced by the prosecutors' office in Para follows a surge in fires and destruction of the Amazon rainforest that experts blame on reduced protection of the environment under right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.

    Drone images showing the magnitude of the fires have prompted global outrage, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday saying he was "deeply concerned".

    "In the midst of the global crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity," he said on Twitter, referring to the Amazon rainforest, which is often referred to as the "lungs of the planet".

    "The Amazon must be protected," he said.

    The extent of the area damaged by fires has yet to be determined but smoke has choked Sao Paulo and several other Brazilian cities. Indigenous families in the states affected by the fires have told Al Jazeera some in their communities have "lost everything".

    Brazil fires
    Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, August 17, 2019 [Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters] 

    Nearly 73,000 fires were recorded between January and August, compared with 39,759 in all of 2018, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) said on Monday. The surge marks an 83 percent increase over the same period last year and is the highest since INPE records began in 2013.

    Bolsonaro said on Thursday his government does not have the resources to fight the fires. His comments came, however, weeks after he told donor countries who recently pulled funding over his policies that he did not need their money.

    On Wednesday, Bolsonaro said, without supplying evidence, that non-governmental organisations were behind the fires.

    Questioned a day later about those comments, he said he could not prove that NGOs, whose funding he had cut, were lighting the fires, but that they were "the most likely suspects." He again did not provide evidence for his suspicions.

    Later on Thursday, Bolsonaro for the first time acknowledged that farmers might be involved in lighting fires in the region. Brazilian media have reported that fires surged around the time of when an association of farmers in the state of Para called for a "day of fire". 

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    The right-wing president has repeatedly said he believes Brazil should open the Amazon up to business interests, to allow mining and logging companies to exploit its natural resources.

    Climate scientist Carlos Nobre said farmers seeking to clear land for cattle pastures wait for the dry season when forests become combustible and then set them alight. He attributed this year's spike to illegal deforestation since it has not been unusually dry.

    "NGOs working in the Amazon do not use fire in farming. On the contrary, they encourage rural communities to avoid fire," said Nobre, senior researcher at the Sao Paulo University's Institute for Advanced Studies.

    'International crisis'

    Brazil is facing growing international criticism over its handling of the Amazon, 60 percent of the rainforest lies in the country.

    France's Emmanuel Macron on Thursday said the fires represented an "international crisis" and called on this weekend's G7 to address the issue.

    "Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rainforest - the lungs which produce 20 percent of our planet's oxygen - is on fire. It is an international crisis. Members of the G7 Summit, let's discuss this emergency first order in two days!" Macron tweeted.

    Earlier this month, Norway and Germany suspended funding for projects to curb deforestation in Brazil after becoming alarmed by changes to the way projects were selected under Bolsonaro.

    At the time, when asked about the loss of German funding, Bolsonaro said, "Brazil does not need that."

    On Thursday, Bolsonaro said without evidence that countries that give money to preserve the Amazon rainforest do not do it for charity, but to "interfere with our sovereignty". 

    Other officials have also expressed concern over the fires. 

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    Brazil's lower house speaker, Rodrigo Maia, said on Twitter he would create "an external committee" to monitor the burning of the rainforest. He also promised to form a group "to evaluate the situation and propose solutions to the government."

    The Bishops Conference for Latin America expressed concern about what it called "a tragedy," and on Thursday called on countries to take immediate action to protect the rainforest and the communities that live in and around it.

    "We urge the governments of the Amazon countries, especially Brazil and Bolivia, the United Nations and the international community to take serious measures to save the world's lungs," the Bishops Conference said.

    "If the Amazon suffers, the world suffers," the statement said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies