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Deforestation is causing a wave of fires in the Brazilian Amazon

Agribusiness interests drive record deforestation, contributing to fire activity we haven’t seen in years.

The Brazilian Amazon rainforest has suffered more fires than at any time in nearly five years, driven by a surge in illegal deforestation.

According to Brazil’s National Space Institute, satellites have detected more than 33,000 fires as the rainforest enters the height of the fire season, which is often associated with high levels of deforestation activity.

“The rate of deforestation is very high. This means there are many deciduous trees ready to be burned,” Annie Alencar, Mapbiomas Fire Project coordinator, told The Associated Press. “Fire season will be more intense in September.”

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Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been criticized for his failure to combat illegal deforestation and for what critics have claimed is a sympathetic view of such activities. Fires are usually lit by groups that give way to grazing livestock, and environmentalists and indigenous groups have faced violence and repression.

The Amazon experienced its worst August fire in 12 years, but Bolsonaro played down the criticism, boosting business activity in the Amazon, and suggested the criticism was part of an attempt to undermine Brazil’s agribusiness.

“Brazil does not deserve to be attacked in this way,” said Bolsonaro, who is fighting for re-election.

“None of those who attack us have the right. If they wanted to call a beautiful forest their own, they should have preserved the ones in their countries,” he wrote on Twitter last month.

A recent report by the Igarape Institute, a Brazilian think-tank, found that authorities are doing little to reduce deforestation in the Amazon.

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The study analyzed 302 environmental crime raids carried out by federal police in the Amazon region between 2016 and 2021, targeting just 2 percent of people who illegally appropriated unallocated public land.

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The fires began to spread rapidly in August after a period of unusually heavy rain early in the month, according to Alencar. The fires caused clouds of stinging smoke that could hover over cities like Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon, for weeks at a time.

About 20 percent of the area burned in the Amazon this year was recently deforested. Some are located in areas meant to be protected but are targeted by land grabbers, according to an analysis by the Center of Life, a Brazilian nonprofit, based on NASA’s Global Fire Emissions Database.

Deforestation has been unleashed in Mato Grosso’s Cristalino II State Park, for example, after a state court invalidated the area’s protected status. Prosecutors have appealed the decision, but in the past few weeks, fires have gutted nearly 40 square kilometers (15 square miles), according to the Center for Life Institute.

Half of Brazil’s carbon pollution is from land conversion. As the Amazon rainforest burned, areas that played an important role in absorbing carbon began releasing large amounts into the atmosphere.

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Bolsonaro’s government promised to end illegal deforestation by 2028 at the COP26 climate summit, but forest loss rose to a 15-year high during his tenure.

“If Brazil wants to reduce carbon emissions, the first thing to do is to reduce deforestation,” Alencar said. “The second is to reduce the use of fire.”

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