Brazil leader sug­gests crit­ics to blame for fires in Ama­zon

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Ter­rence McCoy

RIO DE JANEIRO — The signs of cri­sis are ev­ery­where.

Sao Paulo, the Western Hemi­sphere’s big­gest city, was cov­ered in a blan­ket of smoke this week that turned night to day. The vi­ral cam­paign #Pray­fortheA­ma­zon is wash­ing across so­cial me­dia. And one of the gov­ern­ment’s lead­ing re­search agen­cies is say­ing that rates of de­for­esta­tion in the Ama­zon are sky­rock­et­ing — along with the rate of for­est fires.

But Brazil­ian Pres­i­dent Jair Bol­sonaro, the man most able to staunch the un­fold­ing cri­sis in the Ama­zon, isn’t just ig­nor­ing the prob­lem.

He’s sug­gest­ing it’s be­ing staged to make him look bad.

Asked this week about the surg­ing fires in the world’s most pre­cious for­est — the area scorched has more than dou­bled in the past two years — he ac­cused non­govern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions of set­ting them, to “call at­ten­tion” against his gov­ern­ment.

“The fire was started, it seemed, in strate­gic lo­ca­tions,” he said. “There are images of the en­tire Ama­zon. How can that be? Ev­ery­thing indicates that peo­ple went there to film and then to set fires. That is my feel­ing.”

This comes weeks af­ter he ac­cused the di­rec­tor of a gov­ern­ment agency that mon­i­tors the Ama­zon of ly­ing about ris­ing de­for­esta­tion — and fired him. He’s also em­broiled in a pub­lic spat with Ger­many and Nor­way, who have cut aid to the Ama­zon over his poli­cies.

The con­tro­ver­sies have be­come not only a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal dis­trac­tion, drawing crit­i­cism from some of the na­tion’s most prom­i­nent sci­en­tists. They’re also pos­ing a mor­tal threat to Brazil’s po­si­tion as global leader on the en­vi­ron­ment.

Cli­mate change “is a theme of the global agenda,” said Mauri­cio San­toro, a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at the state univer­sity in Rio. “And Brazil plays a cen­tral role, whether it wants to or not, be­cause of the Ama­zon, be­cause of its bio­di­ver­sity.”

Bol­sonaro ran for of­fice last year in part on prom­ises to open the Ama­zon for busi­ness. De­for­esta­tion has surged since he took of­fice at the be­gin­ning of the year.

In July alone, ac­cord­ing to Brazil’s Na­tional In­sti­tute for Space Re­search, the Ama­zon lost 870 square miles of for­est — more than half the size of Rhode Is­land.

De­struc­tion and hu­man contact in­side the for­est is mak­ing what was once thought to be all but im­pos­si­ble — wild­fires in a rain­for­est — pos­si­ble.

The area in Brazil’s Ama­zon re­gions razed by fire has more than dou­bled in two years, from 3,168 square miles dur­ing the first seven months of 2017 to 7,192 square miles dur­ing the same pe­riod this year, the space in­sti­tute re­ported.

The Ama­zon for­est serves as the lungs of the planet, tak­ing in car­bon diox­ide, stor­ing it in soils and pro­duc­ing oxy­gen. Sci­en­tists agree that it is one of the world’s great de­fenses against cli­mate change.

In Brazil, the Ama­zon has suf­fered 74,155 fires since Jan­uary, the space re­search in­sti­tute re­ported. That’s up 85 per­cent from last year and sig­nif­i­cantly higher than the 67,790 blazes at this point in 2016, when there were se­vere drought con­di­tions in the re­gion as­so­ci­ated with a strong El Nino event.

Farm­ers and oth­ers burn the rain­for­est to clear land and main­tain open space. Bol­sonaro, try­ing to lift the country out of years of eco­nomic stag­na­tion, is en­cour­ag­ing devel­op­ment in the re­gion.

But Car­los No­bre, one of Brazil’s fore­most sci­en­tists, said that ac­tiv­ity will cause more harm.

“We make a joke that the for­est is be­com­ing like Swiss cheese, with ... roads and things cross­ing in the for­est,” he said. “And it be­comes more vul­ner­a­ble and de­graded . ... And the more the for­est be­comes de­graded, the more the for­est will be­come vul­ner­a­ble to for­est fires.”

Sci­en­tists warn that the Ama­zon is ap­proach­ing a tip­ping point, at which the dam­age done to the for­est could be­come ir­re­versible.


Brazil­ian Pres­i­dent Jair Bol­sonaro says “ev­ery­thing indicates that peo­ple went there to film and then to set fires.”

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