Illustration: JuanLudd

Brazil’s Amazon rainforest is burning at the highest rate since 2013. The reason? The Brazilian government is letting it happen.

The far-right administration of President Jair Bolsonaro has loosened strict environmental policies and has not cared much about the recent numbers that show an increasing  deforestation.

Since the beginning of 2019, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has reported 72,843 fires throughout the country, with more than half of these being in the Amazon region. This means the equivalent of more than a soccer field and a half of Amazon rainforest is being destroyed every minute of every day, according to INPE.

Bolsonaro has dismissed the reports made by INPE—which also showed an 80 percent increase in deforestation so far this year compared to last year—and fired INPE’s director, Ricardo Galvao. Without any type of evidence to support his allegations, Bolsonaro claimed that the reason for these massive fires in the Amazon could have been from non government organizations (NGOs) hostile to his presidency.

“We took money away from the NGOs,” he said. “They are now feeling the pinch from the lack of funding. So, maybe the NGO types are conducting these criminal acts in order to generate negative attention against me and against the Brazilian government.”

However, environmental organizations have previously said the fires began with increased land-clearing and logging that was encouraged by the country’s pro-business president. When confronted with the data and numbers rom these studies, Bolsonaro frequently lies, blaming and accusing others to cover his lack knowledge about many subjects.

During Bolsonaro’s presidency, Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment has facilitated deforestation with the cancellation of fines, the dismissal of servers and the weakening of protected area guarantees. Since his election, Bolsonaro has cut the budget of the nation’s environmental enforcement agency by $23 million.

Bolsonaro’s Environment Minister dismissed 21 of the 27 superintendents of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) earlier this year on Feb. 21, and announced a “core of environmental conciliation,” set up in April to review the agency’s fines.

When asked what would be his next actions to diminish the damages, Bolsonaro said that he is considering sending army troops to help combat the fires raging in the Amazon. Executive action to deploy troops is only available when traditional public safety measures have been depleted, according to guidelines from the Ministry of Defense. The Amazon states of Acre and Amazonas have already declared a state of emergency.

Why the Amazon is important and why it must be preserved

The world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon spans eight countries and covers 40 percent of South America—an area that is nearly the size of two-thirds of the United States, according to the World Wildlife Fund. More than 30 million people live in the Amazon, which is also home to the largest diversity of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles on the planet, most of them unique to the region. A new plant or animal species is discovered there every two days. The Amazon forest, which produces about 20 percent of earth’s oxygen, is sometimes referred to as “the lungs of the planet.”

When we talk about how important it is to preserve the Amazon, we have to refer back to one notable leader who initiated the movement to maintain and protect the Amazon from the  dangers of deforestations and fires. Environmental activist Chico Mendes pioneered the world’s first tropical forest conservation initiative, advanced by forest peoples themselves. His work led to the  establishment of Brazil’s extractive reserves (protected forest areas) that are inhabited and managed by local communities. Chico Mendes and his colleagues were a tiny, marginalized minority in the 1980s, but their efforts brought them to power in parts of Brazil’s Amazon by the end of that decade. Tragically, Mendes became world-famous only when he was gunned down for his work in 1988.

As of press time, the fires in the Amazon are still burning.