As world leaders take the virtual stage at the UN General Assembly, they keep highlighting two global crises: The coronavirus pandemic and the inexorable warming of the planet. For Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who spoke first of all, both crises have been met with the same response: denial, finger-pointing and ineffective gestures.
The Amazon is a crucial buffer against climate change and occupies about 49% of Brazil’s territory. Since his election in 2018, it has been entrusted to Bolsonaro. But just as he has shown deep skepticism about the value of lockdowns to curb the coronavirus, he also has shied away from sufficiently enforcing changes to keep the Amazon from burning.
Addressing UN member states in a pre-recorded address on Tuesday, Bolsonaro accused foreign actors of a “brutal disinformation campaign” about the supposed degradation of the Amazon as well as Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands. Reports of fires in the Amazon had been exaggerated, he claimed, adding that the sheer size of the Amazon territory – greater than Western Europe – made it difficult to fight illegal burning and clearing operations.
But while Bolsonaro decries a “war of information” over the Amazon, downplaying fires constitutes outright misinformation.
Data from his own government shows that the number of fires in the Amazon has skyrocketed during his presidency. In 2019, his first year in office, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) counted 126,089 fires in the Amazon – a rise of nearly 40% over the year before he took office.
INPE data also show fires raging in the Pantanal, home to alligators, jaguars and many other animals. It has registered 16,119 heat spots in Pantanal in 2020, the most since 1998, when the institute started keeping record.
Actions with little effect
Bolsonaro has frequently patted himself on the back for his environmental efforts, telling the UN General Assembly that no other country protected as much wild territory as Brazil.
His administration has indeed made gestures toward protecting those lands. On Monday, the Ministry of Environment announced the creation of the Secretariat of the Amazon, to deal with subjects directly linked to the rainforest, and the Secretariat of Protected Areas, to manage environmental conservation lands.
This year, Bolsonaro also signed two executive orders to curb deforestation: one prohibiting clearing the forest by fire – a common tactic of illegal ranchers, loggers and farmers – and another order authorizing an army group to patrol the Amazon for prevent banned clearing and burning operations. The decree authorized the military to operate inside indigenous lands and within environmental conservation areas.
But so far, the so-called “Operation Green Brazil 2” and the ban on fires have proven toothless. Though the army group has issued over R$520 million (US$96.3 million) in fines to people accused of committing deforestation, the number of fires has not decreased. It has actually increased: INPE registered the most active fires yet this year in August (29,307) and September (27,660) due also to the dry weather typical of this time of the year. The September number is 69.7% higher than the same month last year.
Critics at home
Many environmentalists view Bolsonaro’s claims with skepticism, pointing out that one of his campaign promises was to shrink undeveloped indigenous lands and to “explore the Amazon’s economic potential.” Bolsonaro has also pushed to allow so-called “land grabbers,” who illegally invaded public land from 2011 to 2018, to obtain legal ownership.
During a closed-door meeting on April 22, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said the pandemic had created an opportunity for Bolsonaro’s government to weaken some regulations, including laws that forbid deforestation in certain lands. Video of the meeting was released to the Brazilian press on order of the Federal Court of Justice.
Later, in an exclusive interview with CNN Brasil, Salles doubled down on his remarks. “I defended [on the video] that in all ministries, including the Ministry of the Environment, there was room for less bureaucracy. What I defended in the meeting were regulations that do not need to go through Congress [to be approved],” he said.
The administration’s denials of the gravity of Amazonian fires has also raised red flags. Just as he once dismissed the coronavirus as nothing but a “little flu,” Bolsonaro has several times claimed that reports of the fires were false, such as in his weekly livestreams on Facebook. On Tuesday, he repeated his frequent claim that fires could not spread in the Amazon’s tropical rainforest, because it is “wet.”
But as the global climate warms, the Amazon is increasingly hot and dry, which makes it even easier for fire to spread.
“Very severe dry season, record-breaking temperatures, record-breaking dryness in the air. You have all these elements together, (which) created the conditions for a tremendous amount of fuel to burn,” Carlos Nobre, Brazil’s leading climate scientist and senior researcher at the University of Sao Paulo’s Institute for Advanced Studies, told CNN.
This in turn threatens to accelerate climate change. As CNN has previously reported, the Amazon absorbs billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year, and its vast tree canopy serves as an “air conditioner” for the planet, scientists say.
One study, published in January, warned that fires could jeopardize the Amazon’s ability to fight climate change to the point that the forest could begin contributing more planet-warming gases into the air than it absorbs.
At home, environmental advocates and opposition parties have accused the Bolsonaro administration of inaction, most recently in an ongoing hearing before Brazil’s Federal Court of Justice on Monday, where several groups accused the federal government of failing to adopt key climate protection measures.
But Bolsonaro’s top intelligence advisor, Gen. Augusto Heleno, deflected blame with a familiar claim, saying that NGOs backed by “foreign powers” sought to cast Brazil as “villains of deforestation and global warming” with “false arguments, manufactured and manipulated numbers, and unfounded accusations.”
Meanwhile, the Amazon continues to burn.