Raging fires and dark skies put Brazil’s Bolsonaro in spotlight


Brazil’s Amazon is burning at a record rate, according to data from the National Institute of Space Research that intensified domestic and international scrutiny of President Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policies.

INPE, as the institute is known, recorded an 84% increase in fires in Brazil between 2018 and 2019, most in the Amazon rainforest. It was the highest level in seven years of record keeping. Bolsonaro said Wednesday without offering evidence that NGOs could be setting the blazes to discredit him.

The president has come under intense pressure to contain the fires raging through the world’s largest rainforest, many set by loggers incentivized by his government. One catalyst: the apocalyptic darkness that gripped the megalopolis of Sao Paulo on Monday afternoon, unnerving locals and triggering a fierce scientific debate over its cause. Some researchers blamed the gloom on a cold front coupled with smoke from Amazon blazes over 1,000 miles away. The hashtag #PrayforAmazonia has dominated social media in Brazil over the past few days.

For those living in the Amazon, the smoke is intense. Moises Fernandes, an agronomist and consultant in the state of Rondonia said that it’s been several days since he’s been able to see the river that lies just 450m away from his apartment.

The fires are not in the interests of large-scale landowners who own cattle that need to graze, and are mainly caused by smallholders in the region to recover their fields. “The small-scale producer is the one burning,” he said. “He burns because he doesn’t have access to technology, means of production, technical assistance so he winds up doing that.”

Fernandes says that oversight has decreased over recent years but the problem is not new, and not limited to this government.

Record Fires

“It’s normal to see fires at the end of the dry season,” Celso Oliveira, a meteorologist from Somar Meteorologia in Sao Paulo, said, adding that many parts of the country had gone three to six months without rain. “But there are also many fires caused by people clearing pasture and planting soybeans. There’s a lot of pressure on the Amazon region.”

Satellite imagery of smoke above the Amazon from Aug. 13.

Oliveira, however, dismissed suggestions that the eerie darkness that descended on Brazil’s most populous city had anything to do with the fires in the Amazon, pointing to official data showing good air quality in the area. “The gloom has no relation to the smoke, it happened because of the enormity of the clouds,” he said.

Regardless of the exact cause of Monday’s strange weather, the event has drawn attention to Bolsonaro’s environmental policies. The president has spoken repeatedly of his desire to develop the Amazon economically and integrate the indigenous people living there into contemporary Brazilian society.

He also recently fired the head of INPE, Ricardo Galvao, after dismissing data showing an 88% rise in deforestation between June 2018 and June 2019 as “lies”. Galvao’s replacement said that climate change “is not my thing”.

The president recently dismissed European leaders’ concerns about his government’s environmental policies after Norway followed Germany and froze millions of dollars in financial aid to an Amazon rainforest preservation fund.

No Relief

Brush fires burn in Guaranta do Norte municipality, Mato Grosso state, Brazil, on Aug. 20. (Source- Corpo de Bombeiros de Mato Grosso via AP Photo)

There’s little prospect of a sudden change in the weather putting out the fires. Brazil has been drier than normal and there doesn’t look to be any real relief until the rainy season starts in December, said Jason Nicholls, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.

Any hope for an early start to the rainy season faded when an El Nino in the equatorial Pacific ended, Nicholls said. With the Pacific closer to normal it could even mean a delay for the annual onset of rains across the region.

“I really don’t see any prospects of the rainy season kicking in earlier,” Nicholls said. “There will be very little help from Mother Nature over the next two or three months or so.”