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The Amazon is on fire, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is stoking a baseless conspiracy theory pinning the blame on non-governmental organizations that protect rainforests. He’s claimed the groups lit the blazes to “call attention against me, against the Brazilian government,” sans any evidence at all.
The fires drew international attention this week after smoke helped plunge Sao Paulo into a midday darkness. And while fires set by farmers to clear land could be to blame for some blazes in the Amazon, Bolsonaro — whose support for deforestation in the face of environmental protests has earned him the nickname “Captain Chainsaw” — stuck by blaming NGOs.
“On the question of burning in the Amazon, which in my opinion may have been initiated by NGOs because they lost money, what is the intention? To bring problems to Brazil,” he said.
On a Facebook live broadcast on Wednesday, Bolsonaro was asked if he had any evidence that the NGOs were to blame. He said he had "no written plan" to back up his claim and "that's not how it's done," according to Al Jazeera.
NGOs in Brazil were quick to rebuke Bolsonaro’s conspiracy theory. "This is a sick statement, a pitiful statement," said Marcio Astrini, Greenpeace Brazil's public policy coordinator, to Al Jazeera. "Increased deforestation and burning are the result of his anti-environmental policy."
Bolsonaro campaigned on loosening deforestation restrictions to promote commercial interests, and as president, he’s followed through. Since he took office in January, the Amazon has lost about 1,330 square miles of forest, which represents a 39% increase over the same period last year.
Camila Veiga, of the Brazilian Association of NGOs, told AFP that "the fires are the consequence of a policy of environmental devastation, of support for agribusiness, of increasing pastures.”Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research said this week that there have been 74,155 fires in the country so far this year, most of which were in the Amazon. That represents an 80% increase over last year.
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly how each fire started, but most experts agree that humans are to blame for the uptick. Christian Poirier, the program director of non-profit organization Amazon Watch, pinned the fires on cattle ranchers and loggers clearing land.
"The vast majority of these fires are human-lit," Poirier told CNN.
And while Bolsonaro might blame NGOs with no evidence, there is myriad evidence Bolsonaro has emboldened those who want to deforest the Amazon. The National Institute for Space Research showed a huge increase in deforestation in just the last few months — and Bolsonaro called that data a lie.
“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.”
Cover: This satellite image provided by NASA on Aug. 13, 2019 shows several fires burning in the Brazilian Amazon forest. Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, a federal agency monitoring deforestation and wildfires, said the country has seen a record number of wildfires this year, counting 74,155 as of Tuesday, Aug. 20, an 84 percent increase compared to the same period last year. (NASA via AP)