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The Amazon Continues to Burn

burned trees in forest
A strip of recently burned land in Brazil. Photo taken in 2014 by Miguel Pinheiro/CIFOR

The environmental tragedy of deforestation and fires destroying huge expanses of the Amazon rainforest does not stop even in the face of the pandemic. Instead, it gets worse every day.

Last summer’s bonfires sparked protests from the whole world and literally blinded large cities such as São Paulo with dense smoke. Now the fire season is back in Brazil and a report released a few days ago by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) has announced that this year the fire season could be much more devastating.

Many fires in the Amazon are illegal and caused by farmers and ranchers who burn trees to make room for their businesses. The technique is based on the concept of “slash and burn,” where the trees are first cut down and then burned to make room for the land to be grown or for livestock. However, international pressure and the deployment of the Brazilian army in the region during the past fire season forced many to abandon the “job” before they could burn the felled trees. This creates an ideal situation for this year’s fires to spread rapidly and violently.

“A deforested area of at least 4,500 square kilometers in the Amazon, three times larger than the surface of the city of São Paulo, Brazil, is ready to burn,” said the IPAM.

Smoke from fires creates additional health problems for the population, and increases the potential risks associated with the pandemic. As happened a few weeks ago in the case of the supercyclone Amphan that hit India and Bangladesh, the pandemic creates a further obstacle to preventing and extinguishing fires, thus establishing a vicious cycle that feeds one crisis through the other.

In fact, the more the region is consumed by the pandemic, the less environmental authorities can deploy personnel and resources to protect the forest; on the other hand, the more the forest burns, the worse the health crisis will be. “The bad guys and thieves are not in quarantine while the good guys, the police and government agents are fighting the virus,” IPAM director Andre Guimaraes told Brazilian newspaper Globo. In addition, it should not be forgotten that indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to external diseases and Brazil, which holds about 60 percent of the Amazon, is the latest epicenter of the pandemic, with the second highest death toll in the world.

Unfortunately, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon peaked in the first four months of 2020. A total of 1,202 square kilometers of forest — an area 20 times larger than Manhattan — was wiped out in the Brazilian Amazon from January to April, according to an analysis of satellite images by the National Space Research Institute of Brazil. That’s an increase of 55 percent compared to last year.

To the environmental and human tragedy is added the political tragedy of a country where the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro (whose ultimate goal is to legalize deforestation, agriculture and extraction on protected lands) competes with Donald Trump for the most obtuse environmental policy on the planet. The icing on the cake comes from the Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles, who said during a conversation recorded in April that the government should take advantage of the pandemic distraction to loosen regulations, favoring the destruction of the forest.

In the words of the great Brazilian master Vinicius de Moraes: “Sadness has no end; happiness does.” In Brazil, for now, sadness unfortunately dominates undaunted.

Adapted and translated from an article originally published by La Repubblica.

Marco Tedesco is a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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