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Just How Bad Are the Amazon Fires?

In a word: Bad. In two words: Really bad.

by Tim Marcin
Aug 23 2019, 1:04pm

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The fires in the Amazon raged on Friday, continuing the most destructive year for the rainforest in recent memory.

The Amazon catches fire every year, but this year the blazes are as bad as they’ve been in a decade, with more than 75,000 fires since the beginning of the year. And despite global media attention and protests, the outlook is grim. It’s the thick of the dry season for the Amazon, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro seems dead-set on not taking the problem seriously.

Here’s what you need to know.

How bad is it?

In a word: bad.

Maps of active fires shows just how widespread the blazes are.

The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in Brazil has said satellite data shows an 80% increase in fires compared to this time last year. Northern regions in Brazil have had it the worst. Roraima saw a 141% increase in fires, Acre 138%, Rondônia 115%, and Amazonas 81%, according to the BBC.

The fires are part of widespread deforestation under Bolsonaro’s watch. Since he took office in January, the Amazon has lost some 1,330 square miles of forest, a nearly 40% increase over the same period last year. In June alone, the Amazon lost an area of forest half the size of Rhode Island.

Read: Brazil's President Bolsonaro is now spreading conspiracy theories about the Amazon fires

The fires have also created a ton of smoke. The smoke from the blazes helped throw Sao Paulo — a city thousands of miles away — into a midday darkness this week.

Why is it so bad?

Bluntly put: People did this. This isn’t a natural disaster.

Bolsonaro ran on a pro-business agenda, and under his administration, loggers and farmers have felt emboldened to light fires to clear land.

Alberto Setzer, a senior scientist at INPE, told CNN that 99% of the fires came from human actions "either on purpose or by accident."

For Bolsonaro’s part, he doesn’t take the record number of blazes very seriously.

“You have to understand that the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours,” Bolsonaro told a group of foreign reporters last month. “If all this devastation you accuse us of doing was done in the past, the Amazon would have stopped existing; it would be a big desert.”

What, exactly, is up with Bolsonaro?

Brazil’s president isn’t taking responsibility for the fires. In fact, he’s going on the offensive.

For instance, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted this week: “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rainforest — the lungs which produce 20% 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!”

READ: Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro really wants to be Trump’s super best friend

Bolsonaro was insulted that the G7 nations — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. — would talk about the Amazon without Brazil present.

"I regret that President Macron is seeking to instrumentalize an internal issue in Brazil and in other Amazonian countries for personal political gains," Bolsonaro tweeted.

He added: "The suggestion of the French president that Amazonian issues be discussed in the G7 without countries in the region participating is reminiscent of a colonial mindset inappropriate in the 21st century."

Beefs with Macron aside, Bolsonaro has refused to take the fires seriously. This week he floated a bizarre conspiracy theory — without a shred of evidence — that NGOs tasked with protecting the Amazon were actually lighting the fires to make the Brazilian government look bad.

"This is a sick statement, a pitiful statement," Marcio Astrini, Greenpeace Brazil's public policy coordinator, said this week. "Increased deforestation and burning are the result of his anti-environmental policy."

Cover: This satellite image provided by NASA shows the fires in Brazil on Aug. 20, 2019. As fires raged in the Amazon rainforest, the Brazilian government on Thursday denounced international critics who say President Jair Bolsonaro is not doing. (NASA via AP)