#PrayforAmazonia Trends as Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro Blasted for Inaction Over 3-Week-Long Forest Fires Ravaging the 'Lungs of Our Planet'

The hashtag #PrayforAmazonia is trending on Twitter as fires have ravaged swathes of the Amazon region, leading many social media users to slam the lack of concern from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's administration.

One large fire, which started in late July, burnt around 1,000 hectares of an environmental reserve in the Brazilian state of Rondônia—located on the border with Bolivia. This blaze, along with others in the region, created dense plumes of smoke that spread far across the state, 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, Euronews reported. Various fires have also been burning in the state of Mato Grosso, according to satellite imagery.

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

In fact, some meteorologists said smoke from the fires in Rondônia had a part to play in the sky turning dark in São Paulo on Monday afternoon.

"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. The practice is often illegal as there is a high risk of the fire spreading in the dry season.

"The population has to be aware that today any burning is a crime, not to mention that our fauna and flora suffers directly from this situation, besides children and the elderly. People have to be aware, " Marcos Silva, a firefighter in the state of Rondônia, told Painel Politico.

According to NASA, the Amazon rainforest has been relatively fire-resistant throughout its history due to its moist and humid conditions. But an increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts—a phenomenon that's linked to anthropogenic climate change—in combination with human activities in the forest has led to a spike in the number of fires.

In fact, the number of fire outbreaks in Brazil grew by 70 percent this year in comparison to the same period of 2018, reaching the highest rate since 2013—the first year in which such data was collected—according to the country's National Institute for Space Research (INPE.) Of these fires, 51.9 percent of incidents occurred in the Amazon biome, the data indicates.

As of August 2, the most forest fires this year 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.

Ricardo Mello, Amazon Program Manager from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said that in the Amazon region there are no natural processes that cause fires.

"Every fire [in the Amazon region] is somehow started by the human being," Mello told UOL.com.br. "So this increase [in fires] is directly caused by the action of man."

Ane Alencar, director of science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) echoed these sentiments, explaining that the burns could only be explained by increases in deforestation, as there were no extreme natural events which could be responsible.

"This year we do not have an extreme drought, as there was 2015 and 2016. In 2017 and 2018 we had a sufficient rainy season," Alencar told UOL. "In 2019, we have no weather events that affect droughts, such as El Niño, or they are not happening [so] strong. There's no way the weather can explain this increase [of burns.]"

Last month, President Bolsonaro said he did not believe data collected by INPE, which revealed that deforestation in July had increased nearly 300 percent in comparison to the same month in 2018. He accused the agency of making up "lies" that could hurt the country's trade talks and subsequently replaced its chief with a military official.

"News like this that does not match the truth causes great damage to the image of Brazil," Bolsonaro said in a press conference.

The INPE data collected by the the DETER-B satellite system—which began operations in 2015—showed that deforestation has increased to the point where more than three football fields of tree cover are being lost every minute, The Guardian reported.

While this data from DETER is considered preliminary—more detailed figures are usually released nearer the end of the year, augmented by observations from other satellites—some environmentalists will say the results confirm suspicions that the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro is encouraging activities that lead to deforestation, such as illegal logging and burning.

Since coming to power—with the help of significant support from the agribusiness and mining industries—Bolsonaro has weakened government agencies responsible for protecting the rainforest, as well as regulations covering indigenous lands and nature reserves. The environment agency was effectively placed under the jurisdiction of the agricultural ministry, which is headed by a top farming lobbyist.

Bolsonaro and other officials in his administration have also frequently criticized IBAMA—a government ministry that fights deforestation—for imposing fines on those who clear the forest.

Moves such as these have emboldened those who want to exploit the forest for commercial gain and make it more likely that clearances in 2019 will exceed the 3,050 square miles that were lost in 2018—the year when deforestation hit its highest rate in a decade. Official government figures show that there was a 13 percent increase in forest loss between 2017 and 2018.

"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."

This is deeply troubling as experts warn that the rainforest is being cleared away at such a fast rate that it is approaching a "tipping point" beyond which it may not be able to recover.

As trees are lost, researchers say there is a risk that large swathes of the forest could transition to savannah as they lose the ability to make their own rainfall via evaporation and transpiration from plants. This could have significant implications for global warming, given that the rainforest absorbs vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

Some studies have estimated this to be around 20-25 percent of total tree cover, when other factors such as climate change and fires are taken into account, Mongabay reported.

As the #PrayforAmazonia hashtag spread online, many users noted the lack of concern shown by President Bolsonaro and his ministers toward the Amazon in Brazil. The nation hosts 60 percent of the forest's total area within its territory.

"Brazil's president is doing nothing to stop what is happening with the Amazon Rainforest," Twitter user 3mran_alamin posted. "My heritage is from Brazil and it is so sad to see what is happening, it looks like a movie, but it is now. Y'all pray for Brazil! Brazil is destroying Brazil."

"This is the Brazilian environmental policy under president Bolsonaro," another user, olhaoalho, posted. "He doesn't care about life. The Amazon Rainforest's burning for about 3 weeks and nothing's been done."

President Jair Bolsonaro
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro gestures during a ceremony to announce measures to stimulate the economy at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on July 24, 2019. EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images
#PrayforAmazonia Trends as Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro Blasted for Inaction Over 3-Week-Long Forest Fires Ravaging the 'Lungs of Our Planet' | Tech & Science