22 August 2020
One year ago, Brazilian officials discovered a fire burning in the forest around the town of Novo Progresso. It was the first big blaze in the Amazon's dry season.
In the weeks that followed, more than 100,000 other fires were reported in the area. Those fires fueled anger about the government's inability or unwillingness to protect the Amazon rainforest.
This year, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro promised to control the burning. Usually, local farmers set fires to clear land. Bolsonaro banned fires for four months and deployed army troops to fight or prevent more blazes.
But this week the smoke is so thick around Novo Progresso that police have said people driving motor vehicles have crashed because they cannot see.
Bolsonaro has been an active supporter of bringing more farming to the Amazon. The latest burning season could show if he is willing or able to stop the fires.
Observers say the fires are pushing the world's largest rainforest toward a major crisis. If there are many more fires, the Amazon will no longer be able to produce enough rainfall to sustain itself. That means about 65 percent of the forest will begin turning into tropical savanna or grassland.
But people in Novo Progresso, like businessman Claudio Herculano, believe the town has only grown because of increased farming in the area.
"It pains anyone to breathe this air," Herculano said this week. "But all the people here are looking for better days."
Bolsonaro has sent mixed messages: He approved an army-led operation to fight Amazon destruction in May. Yet this month he denied the trees can catch fire. Recently, at a meeting of South American leaders, he noted a decrease in July deforestation numbers. But he failed to say it was the third highest reading for any month since 2015.
"[The] story that the Amazon is burning is a lie," he claimed.
This year, one could see more fires than last, said Paulo Barreto. He is a deforestation researcher at environmental group Imazon.
In July, as the Amazon's dry season began, many trees had been cut down, increasing deforestation by 34 percent. That information comes from Brazil's space agency.
Normally, after trees are cut, the next step is burning the land, which is usually done without the government's required approval.
August and September are when the burning usually increases. In the first half of August, satellites found 19,000 fires across Brazil's Amazon. If this continues, the number of fires would be similar to those reported last August, when Brazil was criticized internationally.
In 2019, some European heads of state threatened Bolsonaro and said they would suspend financing for rainforest protection efforts. Some European Union lawmakers threatened to refuse to sign the free-trade deal Brazil spent nearly 20 years negotiating.
Bolsonaro sent the Army to help put out the fires – and the criticism -- in late August 2019.
There was also a federal police investigation into what became known as the Day of Fire, when several fires were set. Police are still trying to find out if a group of ranchers used the messaging app WhatsApp to set different fires at different times. The investigation has been extended.
Joaquim da Silva is a rancher in Novo Progresso. He says the problem is that many people do not really own the land they use. That makes it easier for them to avoid punishment.
The Amazon has lost about 17 percent of its original area. If nothing changes, it will reach a crisis in the next 15 to 30 years, says Carlos Nobre, a leading climatologist. As the forest breaks down, it will release hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air.
Nobre added signs of change are showing. It is hotter and the dry season is now four months long, not the traditional three months.
I'm Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
blaze– n.a fire
sustain– v.to help stay alive
rancher– n.someone who owns or operates a ranch or farm
original– adj. actual; real or true
climatologist – n.an expert on climate issues