Fires raging in Brazil's Amazon rainforest have hit a record high number this year, according to new data from the country's space research agency, as concerns grow over President Jair Bolsonaro's management of the environment.
Nearly 73,000 fires were recorded between January and August, compared with 39,759 in all of 2018, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) said on Monday. The surge marks an 83 percent increase over the same period last year and is the highest since INPE records began in 2013.
Satellite images spotted more than 9,500 new forest fires since Thursday alone, mostly in the Amazon basin, home to the world's largest tropical forest and seen as vital to slowing the pace of global warming.
Images showed the northernmost state of Roraima covered in dark smoke, while neighbouring Amazonas declared an emergency in the south of the state and in its capital Manaus over the blazes. Acre, on the border with Peru, has been on environmental alert since Friday due to the fires.
A daytime blackout on Monday in Sao Paulo caused by smoke brought in by strong winds from forest fires in Amazonas and the state of Rondonia, more than 2,700km away, prompted tens of thousands of people to take to social media and voice their concerns for the welfare of the Amazon rainforest.
The hashtag #prayforamazonia subsequently became a global Twitter trend, with some commentators criticising Bolsonaro for not doing enough to protect the environment.
🌎Just a little alert to the world: the sky randomly turned dark today in São Paulo, and meteorologists believe it’s smoke from the fires burning *thousands* of kilometers away, in Rondônia or Paraguay. Imagine how much has to be burning to create that much smoke(!). SOS🌎 pic.twitter.com/P1DrCzQO6x— Shannon Sims (@shannongsims) August 20, 2019
The unprecedented surge in fires has occurred since Bolsonaro took office in January vowing to develop the Amazon region for farming and mining, ignoring international concern over increased deforestation.
Wildfires often occur in the dry season in Brazil, which ends in late October or early November, but they are also deliberately started in efforts to illegally clear forest for cattle ranching.
INPE said the large number of wildfires could not be attributed to the dry season or natural phenomena alone.
"There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average," said INPE researcher Alberto Setzer.
Asked about the agency's findings, Bolsonaro brushed off widespread concerns, saying it was the time of the year of the "queimada" or burn, when farmers use fire to clear land.
"I used to be called Captain Chainsaw. Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame. But it is the season of the queimada," he was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying.
Environmental activists, meanwhile, pointed to a recent increase in deforestation as the trigger for the fires.
"What we are seeing is a consequence of the increase in deforestation seen in recent figures," said Ricardo Mello of WWF's Amazon Program.
Last month, INPE published preliminary data showing deforestation in Brazil's portion of the Amazon rainforest soared more than 88 percent in June compared with the same month a year ago, the second consecutive month of rising forest destruction under Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro fired the director of INPE following the publication of the statistics, saying they were inaccurate and smearing Brazil's reputation abroad.
The Brazilian leader has faced mounting domestic criticism over his rhetoric regarding the environment, which activists blame for emboldening loggers, miners and farmers in the Amazon.
Bolsonaro has also come under increased pressure from international powers to protect Brazil's environment under the terms of a landmark free trade deal brokered over two decades between the European Union and South American bloc Mercosur - of which Brazil is a member - and agreed to last month.
The pact requires the Latin American giant to abide by the Paris climate accord, which Bolsonaro has threatened to pull out of, and also aims to end illegal deforestation, including in the Brazilian Amazon.
Amid the rise in deforestation, Norway and Germany halted tens of millions of dollars of Amazon protection subsidies to the Amazon Fund, accusing Brazil of turning its back on the fight against deforestation.
The move came after Bolsonaro's administration unilaterally changed the fund's governance structure and closed down the steering committee that selects the projects to back, making no formal proposal for the composition of a new committee.
Bolsonaro reacted angrily to the suspension of funding and said Brazil would not take any lessons from the donor countries.
"Isn't Norway that country that kills whales up there in the North Pole?" he told reporters. "Take that money and help Angela Merkel reforest Germany," he said.
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