Brazil experiences worst start to Amazon fire season for 10 years

The Amazon has seen the worst start to the fire season in a decade, with 10,136 fires spotted in the first 10 days of August, a 17% rise on last year.

Analysis of Brazilian government figures by Greenpeace showed fires increasing by 81% in federal reserves compared with the same period last year. Coming a year after soaring Amazon fires caused an international crisis, the new figures raised fears this year’s fire season could be even worse than last year’s.

“This is the direct result of this government’s lack of an environment policy,” said Romulo Batista, senior forest campaigner for Greenpeace Brasil. “We had more fires than last year.”

The numbers are likely to add to the rising sense of alarm among business leaders and investors over the negative impact caused by the ongoing destruction of Brazil’s Amazon forest.

“It is a very worrying situation. Clearly, the government’s environmental policy on the Amazon issue is not working,” Candido Bacher, the CEO of Brazil’s biggest bank, Itau Unibanco, said on Wednesday.

In July the government banned fires for 120 days in the Amazon and Pantanal regions, where fires are also raging. On Tuesday Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, falsely claimed reports of rising numbers of Amazon fires were “a lie”.

His administration has been unable to control rising fires and deforestation despite an expensive army operation launched in May. Called Operation Green Brasil 2 and headed by vice-president General Hamilton Mourao, it involves thousands of soldiers, and according to the defence ministry has so far seized 28,100 cubic metres of wood and handed out GBP575,000 worth of fines.

Fires in July were 28% up on a year ago, according to Brazil’s Space Research Institute (INPE), in charge of satellite monitoring. Deforestation from August 2019 to July 2020 is up 34%. And nobody has been charged over last year’s coordinated “Fire Day“, when fires tripled in the state of Para alone on 10-11 August, especially around the Novo Progresso area, where 638 fires were spotted in the first 10 days of August.

“It’s a lot of propaganda,” said Batista of the operation. “You don’t combat deforestation with an army operation, you do it working all year round with intelligence and coordination.”

A year ago Bolsonaro sought to blame Leonardo DiCaprio and NGOs for fires despite providing no evidence – and sacked the head of INPE. On Tuesday, during a meeting of Amazon countries, he made more incorrect claims.

“This story that the Amazon is going up in flames is a lie and we must combat it with true numbers,” Bolsonaro said, according to Reuters, which published photos of forest devastated by fire in Apui municipality in Amazonas state.

Fires in the Amazon dry season are mainly caused by people either clearing land, or burning felled trees or forest from which valuable woods have already been removed, Batista said.

Much of that land becomes cattle pasture, responsible for 80% of deforestation in all Amazon countries. Greenpeace analysis showed that among the Amazon municipalities worst-hit by fires in the first 10 days of August were some of the region’s most important cattle producing areas. Last year the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that Amazon fires were 30% more likely in beef farming zones.

Brazil’s meat industry is coming under increasing pressure to stop cattle from illegally deforested Amazon areas contaminating supply chains. Its biggest companies said they have made huge progress in monitoring in recent years and are developing new strategies to improve it.

On Wednesday, Candido Bracher from Itau Unibanco said the bank would not finance meat companies linked to deforestation. “We want to guarantee the industry won’t be supplied by meat from herds raised in deforested areas,” he told the Estado de S.Paulo newspaper. “We will do this by tracing.”

Itau Unibanco is part of the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development (CEBDS), which has held meetings with Mourao, supreme court judges and Congress leaders to demand action to protect the Amazon, while avoiding confronting the anti-environmentalist stance of key government figures who have disputed climate change science.

“This is not an ideological issue,” said its president, Marina Grossi. “When you do not have a clear policy on this you compromise these companies. You lose value and the country loses.”

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