The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Amazon is burning. Bolsonaro says his critics are setting the fires, to make him look bad.

Brazilian President Bolsonaro said that nongovernmental organizations could be burning down the Amazon rainforest to bring shame on his government. (Video: Reuters)

RIO DE JANEIRO — The signs of crisis are everywhere.

Smoke blankets Sao Paulo, the Western Hemisphere’s biggest city, turning day to night. The viral campaign #PrayForTheAmazon washes across social media. A government research agency warns that the rate of fires is skyrocketing.

But Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the man most able to stanch the crisis unfolding in the Amazon, isn’t just dismissing the problem. He’s suggesting it’s being staged to make him look bad.

Asked about the surging fires in the world’s most precious forest — the area scorched has more than doubled in the past two years — he accused his critics of setting them, to “call attention” against his government.

“The fire was started, it seemed, in strategic locations,” he told reporters this week. “There are images of the entire Amazon. How can that be? Everything indicates that people went there to film and then to set fires. That is my feeling.”

Smoke plunges Sao Paulo into sudden darkness

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That there’s disagreement over even the most basic of facts — what’s causing the infernos and how they can be stopped — has further complicated a response to the environmental crisis unfolding in a rainforest that scientists say is essential to curbing global warming.

The Amazon — 2.12 million square miles across Brazil, Colombia, Peru and other countries — serves as the lungs of the planet, accounting for a quarter of the carbon dioxide absorbed by the world’s forests.

Now it’s under threat as never before. A growing agricultural sector, rampant deforestation and climate change have yielded a disturbing new reality: The world’s largest rainforest — soaked by hundreds of inches of rain each year — is catching fire. As the peak dry season approaches, and environmental safeguards are relaxed, there is pervasive worry the damage will spread.

“The forest is becoming like Swiss cheese, with all of these roads and things crossing in the forest,” said Brazilian environmental scientist Carlos Nobre. “The more the forest becomes degraded, the more the forest will become vulnerable to forest fires.”

The leading force of degradation is deforestation, much of it illegal. The rate at which the Amazon is losing canopy has grown since the inauguration of Bolsonaro, a former fringe lawmaker who campaigned in part on promises to open up the rainforest for development.

In June alone, an area half the size of Rhode Island was lost, government statistics show. Once the trees are cut down, the easiest way to dispose of them is to let them dry for months in the sun — and then set them ablaze.

More than three-quarters of the deforestation is the result of cattle farming and soy production, according to the advocacy group Amazon Watch. Laborers often use fire to clear the land.

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Why the Amazon is burning, and why the fires are likely to get worse

Droughts also play a role. These occur naturally, but scientists say climate change and deforestation are making them more frequent — and more severe.

The result?

“I cannot remember any other big fire episode like this one,” said Vitor Gomes, an environmental scientist at the Federal University of Para.

“Attributing the whole episode to natural causes only is practically impossible,” he said. “We are not even in the middle of the drying season.”

Since January, the Brazilian Amazon has suffered 75,336 fires, according to the country’s National Institute for Space Research, an 85 percent jump from the same point last year. In the last two years, the area razed by fire has more than doubled, from 3,168 square miles during the first seven months of 2017 to 7,192 square miles during the same period this year, the space institute reported.

Bolsonaro is trying to lift Brazil out of years of economic stagnation. But his plans for the Amazon — and his recent behavior — are isolating him internationally, and threatening Brazil’s position as a global leader on the environment.

In recent weeks, he accused the director of the space institute of lying about rising deforestation — and fired him. Then his environmental ministry announced it would take away foreign aid from projects to fight deforestation and instead fund cattle and soybean farmers.

Germany and Norway responded by cutting tens of millions of dollars in aid. Bolsonaro told German Chancellor Angela Merkel to mind her own business, and pointed out that Norway hunts whales.

On Thursday, Bolsonaro complained Brazil didn’t have the money to fight the Amazon’s forest fires.

“There aren’t the resources,” he told reporters. He then reiterated that nongovernmental organizations were “the biggest suspects” in the fires.

His environmental minister, meanwhile, was booed and heckled at a climate conference in the northern city of Salvador.

“Brazil’s climate change denial is isolating the country,” said Mauricio Santoro, a professor of international relations at Rio de Janeiro’s state university. “It is a theme of the global agenda, and Brazil plays a central role, whether it wants to or not, because of the Amazon, because of its biodiversity.”

And because of what’s happening now.

The fires, fueled by winds from an incoming cold front, produced scenes this week both startling and ominous: smoke darkening the midday skies over Sao Paulo and other cities. Day became night, leading to confusion, then jokes — and then outrage, in Brazil and beyond.

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The hashtag #PrayForTheAmazon exploded on social media, along with images of the forest burning and animals cowering — and demands for more action.

“Terrifying to think that the Amazon . . . has been on fire . . . with literally NO media coverage whatsoever! Why?” the actor Leonardo DiCaprio asked on Instagram. The post collected more than 3 million likes.

The implications of a burning Amazon are global. One of the best defenses against climate change, the rainforest is quickly approaching what scientists warn is a tipping point — between 20 and 25 percent deforestation — when the damage done to the forest could become irreversible.

What has alarmed researchers most is that Brazil is not in the midst of any significant drought. The driest part of the year — when the forest is most susceptible to fire — is still to come. But already the forest is burning.

“It is disturbing that forest fires have been in evidence in a year that is not one of extreme drought,” said Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia. “The continual advance of logging makes ever more forest vulnerable to fire, as does the cumulative effect of past forest fires.”

Ricardo Mello, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Amazon program, struggled to find the words to describe his pessimism on Thursday.

“It’s historically — this is highest number [of fires] I’ve ever seen,” he said.

To him, what was most concerning was that the country’s president not only didn’t seem to grasp the consequences of inaction, but he was also transforming an environmental crisis into a dispute he was having with NGOs.

“In cities in the Amazon, airplanes are grounded because there is so much smoke that they can’t take off,” he said. “The situation is very serious. . . . The government has to do something.”

Marina Lopes in Sao Paulo and Andrew Freedman in Washington contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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