Amazon fires: ‘Worst is still to come’ despite Bolsonaro claiming crisis is under control

Larger swathes of deforested land expected to fuel blaze in coming months, leading figure says

Andy Gregory
Thursday 29 August 2019 13:41
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Brazilian Air Force spray water over Amazon fires

The Brazilian government's assertion that wildfires ravaging the Amazon rainforest are under control have been sharply contradicted by one of the country's leading forestry experts, who warned "the worst of the fire is yet to come".

Highlighting the link between deforestation and wildfires in Brazil's O Globo newspaper, Tasso Azevedo pointed out that the fire was yet to spread to newly deforested areas and that it is still early in the country's dry season.

"What we are experiencing is a real crisis, which can turn into a tragedy announced with fires much larger than the current ones if not stopped immediately," said Mr Azevedo, first director general of the National Forest Service and founder of Brazil's leading environmental certification institution, Imaflora.

But president Jair Bolsonaro has dismissed global concern, telling world leaders the situation was returning to normal. On Monday defence minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva called the situation "exaggerated" and denied the fires were out of control.

It's estimated that nearly 50,000 Amazon blazes have ignited this month alone, 89 per cent more than in August 2018 on a scale not seen since 2010.

However, Mr Azevedo explained that while the inferno had so far fed upon areas deforested in April, May and June, it had yet to touch the places cleared in the months since.

Preliminary data from Brazil’s National Space Research Institute suggested huge recorded rises in deforestation in July (278 per cent) and August (118 per cent).

"What came down in July and August will burn in September and October," he said. "The worst of the fire is yet to come."

Mr Azevedo called the inferno "no accident", saying the ignition was nearly always a human action.

"It is part of the dynamics of deforestation in tropical regions," he wrote in Portuguese. "First, they pull down the big trees; then [divert] the river to clear the lower vegetation; and after a few weeks of drying, a fire is set to finish the job."

BBC Brazil analysis analysis suggested the number of environmental fines handed out since Mr Bolsonaro took office had fallen to a ten-year low, dropping 29.4 per cent from the previous year.

Mr Azevedo, who is now coordinator of deforestation tracking network MapBiomas, urged serious action to stop further devastation.

He urged a moratorium on the use of fire continue until the end of the dry season, with a large-scale communication campaign to discourage its use in agriculture.

In conservation units and indigenous territories particularly, law enforcement should come down hard on illegal logging and mining, he said, seizing tools and machinery and destroying them if necessary.

Such measures would be a sharp about-turn for Mr Bolsonaro's government.

Boris Johnson on the Amazon fires

He campaigned last year on a platform to hugely expand development in the Amazon, often dubbed the "lungs of the Earth", championing deforestation to make way for soy bean and cattle farms.

Critics warn that such projects not only threaten the extinction of thousands of creatures - 10 per cent of the world's known species reside in the jungle - but the existence of centuries-old indigenous peoples.

“Let’s integrate these citizens and bring value to all Brazilians,” he tweeted the day after his inauguration.

On Wednesday, accused Germany and France of trying to "buy" Brazil's sovereignty, rejecting the G7's offer of £20m in emergency funds.

But he confirmed that Latin America's Amazon countries would meet in September to discuss both protecting and developing the rainforest region.

Additional reporting by agencies

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