The number of wildfires in Brazil’s Amazon reached a five-year high in August

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MANAUS, Brazil (AP) — More fires have burned in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest this August than any other month in nearly five years, thanks to an increase in illegal deforestation.

Satellite sensors detected 33,116 fires, according to Brazil’s National Space Institute. The dry season months of August and September are usually the worst for both deforestation and fires.

It was also the worst August for fire in 12 years. This includes August 2019, when images of the burning rainforest shocked the world and drew criticism from European leaders. Bolsonaro had recently taken office and was overturning environmental enforcement, saying criminals should not be fined and promising to develop the Amazon.

The far-right president downplayed the raging fires then and continues to do so today. He told the Globo media network on August 22 – the worst day for fire outbreaks in 15 years – that the criticism is part of an effort to undermine the country’s agricultural sector.

“Brazil does not deserve to be attacked in this way,” said Bolsonaro, who is campaigning for re-election.

The fires are even visible several hundred miles away in the Amazon’s largest city, Manaus, where smoke has hung in the sky for weeks.

Fire in the Amazon is almost always intentional, mostly to improve cattle pastures or to burn newly felled trees as they dry out. Fires often burn out of control and spread to virgin forest areas.

After a quiet period of unusually high rainfall in early August, the flames began to spread quickly, said Ane Alencar, coordinator of the Mapbiomas Fire project, which is run by a network of nonprofits, universities and technology startups.

“The rate of deforestation is very high. That means there are a lot of fallen trees ready to burn,” Alencar told The Associated Press in a Zoom interview. The fire season will be even more intense in September.”

About 20% of the area burned in the Amazon this year was recently deforested. Some are within protected areas targeted by land grabbers, according to an analysis by the Center for Life Institute, a Brazilian nonprofit, based on NASA’s Global Fire Emissions Database.

An example is Cristalino II State Park in Mato Grosso, a protected area recently declared illegal by a state court. The prosecution appealed the decision, but the legal dissolution appeared to give license to the loggers, unleashing a wave of destruction. In just the past few weeks, the fire has destroyed nearly 40 square kilometers (15 square miles) in the park, despite the presence of firefighters, according to the Center for Life Institute.

The widespread fire means Brazil is failing to curb greenhouse gas emissions, as nearly half of the country’s carbon pollution comes from land conversion. The Amazon rainforest is a major carbon sink for the planet, but burning wood releases that carbon into the atmosphere.

During the COP26 climate summit earlier this year, the Bolsonaro government pledged to end all illegal deforestation by 2028. So far in his tenure, forest loss has risen to a 15-year high.

“If Brazil wants to reduce carbon emissions, the number one thing it needs to do is reduce deforestation. And the second is to reduce the use of fire,” Alencar said.

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The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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