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The Brazilian Amazon faces the worst fire wave of the decade

An illegal fire in an environmental reserve in the Amazon, south of Novo Progresso (Pará) in mid-August.CARL DE SOUZA / AFP

Brazil’s most valuable ecosystems are suffering a devastating wave of fires that devour rich vegetation and fauna. The Amazon is experiencing the worst wave of fires in the last decade, according to data from the official balance released this Thursday. Satellites have detected more than 32,000 heat sources in the world’s largest rainforest. To the south, another rich Brazilian biome, more unknown but with enormous biodiversity, the Pantanal – the largest wetland on the planet – suffers the worst fire season in history.

This is the dry and fire season in Amazonia. So far this year fires have increased there by 13% compared to 2019, according to the latest data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE, for its acronym in Portuguese). The international situation, with the attention of Europe and the rest of the world focused on the health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, has contributed to the fact that this year the fires have not caused a diplomatic crisis like that of last August. A year ago, a major fires spike in August, just as the G7 was meeting in France, led to strong criticism from world leaders against Brazil, whose president, Jair Bolsonaro, fell out with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron.

This year the international context is different, but the tropical forests continue to burn with fury despite the fact that the authorities banned the fires since the beginning of the season and a wide military deployment in the region. “We have had a lot of fire for two months. We are already worse than last year ”, explained Ane Alencar, scientific director of Institute for Environmental Research of the Brazilian Amazon (IPAM), to Reuters. “If the drought persists it could be worse. We are at the mercy of the rains ”, added the specialist. The outbreaks exceed 30,000 if those of the rest of the Amazonian countries are added.

Without the aura of the Amazon, the fires in the Pantanal have less impact outside of Brazil but here they have been the great environmental issue in recent months. The fire has destroyed a quarter of the territory of this wetland that is located in Mato Grosso. The Pantanal is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world and home to a remarkable population of jaguars.

The Government is perfectly aware that the environment is one of its great Achilles heels in its relationship with the rest of the world. This became clear when Bolsonaro dedicated half of his videoconference address to the United Nations General Assembly last month on the matter. It is a key issue in the negotiations for the ratification process of the free trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur that has already begun.

The Amazon fires are also on the radar of the candidate to replace Donald Trump as president of the United States. The only mention of Brazil in the chaotic first electoral debate came from the mouth of Democrat Joe Biden, who promised that if he wins he will seek 20,000 million dollars in his country and the world to fight the fires in the Amazon. Biden warned that if Brazil does not change the course of its environmental policy, it will suffer economic losses. Investment funds and European companies are increasingly raising their voices, under pressure from their clientele, for the Brazilian authorities to take seriously the need to preserve the fragile Amazon to try to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Biden’s reference to the fires outraged Bolsonaro, always fearful like many of his compatriots that the huge tropical forest will be taken from him by foreigners. The Brazilian responded to the American candidate in a series of forceful tweets including one that said: “Brazil has changed. Its president, unlike those on the left, does not accept bribes, criminal demarcations and unfounded threats ”. And he added in capital letters: “Our sovereignty is non-negotiable.”