Brazil's Bolsonaro Dismisses Amazon Rainforest Fires Outcry: 'I Used to Be Called Captain Chainsaw. Now I Am Nero, Setting the Amazon Aflame'

Brazil has experienced a record number of wildfires this year, according to data collected by the country's National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

The figures show an 83 percent increase in comparison to the same period in 2018, representing the highest number of blazes since the agency began collecting such data in 2013, Reuters reported.

Between January and August this year, INPE reported more than 72,000 fires in Brazil, comfortably more than the roughly 40,000 that were recorded in the entirety of 2018. Since last Thursday alone, INPE said it had recorded nearly 10,000 new fires in Brazil, most of which were located within the Amazon Basin.

The latest figures come as concern grows over the apparent lack of concern shown by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his administration with regards to the destruction of the largest tropical rainforest in the world. The Amazon plays a key role in mitigating the effects of global warming, absorbing vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

According to the data, the most forest fires this year, as of August 2, occurred in the state of Mato Grosso where a total of 8,799 blazes were reported—an increase of 39 percent from 2018, Euronews reported. The number of fires has also spiked in the state of Pará.

In the past weeks, significant fires have ravaged the Brazilian state of Rondônia—located on the border with Bolivia. These, along with others in the region, created dense plumes of smoke that spread far across the state and beyond, endangering the health of people living in the area and the lives of animals, Painel Politico reported.

Two weeks ago, the state of Amazonas in the northwest of the country declared a state of emergency in response to an increase in the number of fires there.

The scale of the recent fires in the Amazon region was highlighted by NASA researcher Santiago Gassó who said on August 13 that they had created a smoke layer covering an area of approximately 1.2 million square miles.

Some meteorologists have even suggested that the fires in Rondônia may have been partly responsible for blotting out the sun in the city of São Paulo on Monday afternoon, which lies more than 1,500 miles away from the state, the BBC reported.

"The smoke did not come from fires from the state of São Paulo, but from very dense and wide fires that have been going on for several days in Rondônia and Bolivia. The cold front changed the direction of the winds and transported this smoke to São Paulo," Josélia Pegorim, a meteorologist from Climatempo, told Globo. "Here in the Greater São Paulo region we had the combination of this excess humidity with the smoke, so it gave this appearance in the sky."

Fire is used in the Amazon as a technique to clear land for agricultural use, in what is one of the main causes of illegal deforestation. Now it is the dry season, which means conditions in many parts of the rainforest are conducive to the fires spreading over large areas. According to INPE, the fires are largely the result of human activities, not natural phenomena.

"There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average," Alberto Setzer from INPE told Reuters. "The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident."

President Bolsonaro dismissed a question regarding the spread of the fires in the Amazon at a press conference saying, "I used to be called Captain Chainsaw. Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame. But it is the season of the queimada," referencing the time of year when farmers use fire to clear land.

Last month, Bolsonaro criticized data collected by INPE, which indicated that there had been a significant rise in deforestation rates recently. Notably, the figures showed that in July this year, deforestation had increased nearly 300 percent in comparison to the same month in 2018.

The president accused the agency of making up "lies" that could hurt the country's trade talks and subsequently fired its chief, replacing him with a military official.

Environmentalists are becoming increasingly concerned with the administration of President Bolsonaro, accusing the government of encouraging deforestation and emboldening those who want to exploit the forest for commercial gain.

During his time in power, Bolsonaro has moved to weaken government agencies that are responsible for protecting the rainforest, as well as regulations covering indigenous lands and nature reserves.

Bolsonaro—who has appointed a prominent climate change denier to head Brazil's Ministry of the Environment—sees these kinds of regulations as in impediment to economic growth in the Amazon region.

"The explosion of deforestation can be attributed both to changes in government actions, such as essentially ending inspections for illegal deforestation and fining those who are caught, and from the rhetoric from President Bolsonaro and his ministers, especially the minister of environment," Philip Fearnside, a professor at Brazil's National Institute of Amazonian Research, told Newsweek. "This has created a climate of impunity under the assumption that there will be no consequences for ignoring environmental regulations."

Scientists say that the preservation of the Amazon is crucial if we want to reduce the impact of climate change because the rainforest absorbs around a quarter of all the carbon dioxide released annually by the burning of fossil fuels.

However, experts are warning that increasing rates of deforestation are pushing the rainforest closer and closer to a "tipping point" beyond which it will not be able to recover.

Amazon rainforest fires
The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured these images of several fires burning in the states of Rondônia, Amazonas, Pará, and Mato Grosso on August 13, 2019. NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and VIIRS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview, and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership.