Bolsonaro's Amazon Inferno


While campaigning for president last year, Mr. Bolsonaro declared that Brazil’s vast protected lands were an obstacle to economic growth and promised to open them up to commercial exploitation. Less than a year into his term, that is already happening.

Brazil’s part of the Amazon lost more than 1,330 sq miles of forest cover in the first half of 2019, a 39% increase over the same period last year, according to the government agency that tracks deforestation.

The Amazon is often referred to as Earth’s “lungs,” because its vast forests release oxygen and store carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that is a major cause of global warming. If enough rain forest is lost and can’t be restored, the area will become savanna, which doesn’t store as much carbon, meaning a reduction in the planet’s “lung capacity.”

Did climate change cause these fires? These fires were not caused by climate change. They were, by and large, set by humans. However, climate change can make fires worse. Fires can burn hotter and spread more quickly under warmer and drier conditions.

When it comes to the future of climate change, widespread fires contribute to a dual negative effect. Trees are valuable because they can store carbon dioxide, and that storage capacity is lost when trees burn. Burning trees also pumps more carbon into the atmosphere.

How does deforestation work? Is this different? Deforestation can be caused by natural factors, like insects or blight, or by humans. This is a typical case of human deforestation: Farmers cut down trees to plant or expand a farm, then burn the leavings to clear the ground.

Brazil had previously tried to portray itself as a leader in protecting the Amazon and fighting global warming. From 2004 to 2012, the country created new conservation areas, increased monitoring and took away government credits from rural producers who were caught razing protected areas. This brought deforestation to the lowest level since record-keeping began.

But as the economy plunged into a recession in 2014, the country became more reliant on the agricultural commodities it produces — beef and soy, which are drivers of deforestation — and on the powerful rural lobby. Land clearing, much of it illegal, began to tick upward again.

Are the fires the fault of President Jair Bolsonaro? There is evidence that farmers feel more emboldened to burn land following the election of Mr. Bolsonaro. A New York Times analysis of public records found that enforcement actions intended to discourage illegal deforestation, such as fines or seizure of equipment, by Brazil’s main environmental agency fell by 20% during the first six months of this year.

Mr. Bolsonaro blames nongovernmental organizations for the fires. He has cited no evidence, and environmental experts dispute the claim.

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