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Satellites Show Thousands Of Fires Sweeping Through Brazil's Amazon Rainforest


There's anger and dismay around the world about what's happening in the Amazon right now. Tens of thousands of fires are burning in the rainforest, dramatically more than last year. Environmentalists say many of these are caused by cattle ranchers and loggers clearing forest land. They blame Brazil's president for encouraging them. NPR's Philip Reeves has just returned from a trip to the Amazon. And first, can you just give us a sense of scale? How serious is this situation?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: I know it's a cliche, but the Amazon rainforest really is the lungs of the world. It stores vast amounts of carbon, and that's really crucial for slowing climate change. There are tens of thousands of fires in the forest every year. But this year, the number is far higher. Let me give you some of the figures. According to Brazil's Institute of Space (ph), there've been more than 74,000 fires this year, and that's up more than 80% of last year. And a lot of these are in the Amazon.

There have been spikes before - in 2005, for example. But back then, there was a drought. And environmentalists and climate change experts are saying there's no drought this year. And they're in no doubt that people are causing most of these in order to clear land, often for cattle. And they say that they have the data to prove it.

CORNISH: When you visited the rainforest, how close were you able to get to see evidence of these fires?

REEVES: Yeah, I was in the west of Brazil in the state of Acre, which is mostly covered by rainforest. And I drove into the forest and started to see smoke pretty early on. And I eventually came across a fire that was actually burning there, so I turned on my tape recorder.

This area of land here - well inside the Amazon rainforest - is burning. I can see charred tree stumps all around me, smoke rising not just above this particular part of the fire but over in the distance. All around, I can see the forest. But I can also see a large area - maybe 10, 12 football fields - that has been burned.

Now that's just one fire. If you think that there are many thousands of these, you get a sense of the scale of this - a scale so great that according to the World Meteorological Organization, smoke from Amazon fires is actually reaching the Atlantic coast and also Brazil's biggest city, Sao Paolo, way to the south of the Amazon.

CORNISH: Why are environmentalists blaming Brazil's president for this?

REEVES: Jair Bolsonaro, the president, argues that his government can exploit the Amazon's mineral and agricultural wealth and preserve the forest. But if you look at what he's actually done since taking office in January, it doesn't seem to have much to do with preservation. He's weakened government environmental enforcement agencies; he's alienated two key foreign sources of money for preservation projects, Norway and Germany; he's also scoffed at satellite data compiled by the government's monitoring agency. And a lot of people say that by doing this, Bolsonaro is encouraging illegal loggers and cattle ranchers to cause more destruction of the kind we're seeing now. Listen to Adriana Ramos, who's from the Socioenvironmental Institute here in Brazil.

ADRIANA RAMOS: I think that it shows to people that the government's not interested in enforcing the legislation and strengthening all the strategies to combat deforestation - like a green sign for people to go into the ground and to the forest without any kind of control because they know that the president, afterwards will say - well, that didn't happen. You know?

CORNISH: How is Bolsonaro reacting to these kinds of accusations?

REEVES: Well, he's tried to counterattack by suggesting, without offering any evidence, that non-governmental organizations are deliberately setting fires in the forest to make him look bad. Bolsonaro tried to row back from that remark somewhat today by posting an online video accusing the media of irresponsibly hyping those remarks. But the allegation's still out there, and it's causing a lot of astonishment and also outrage.

There is generally a lot of anger here about what's happening in the rainforest. Brazil's environment minister had a taste of that during a U.N. climate change meeting here in Brazil this week, where he was heckled and booed. And in the coming days, protests are planned around Brazil to highlight the crisis in the Amazon.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro.

Philip, thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.