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Tens of thousands of fires are burning in the Amazon - here's what you need to know

There is huge concern about the local, national and international impact of the fires.

brazil-manicore-amazon-fire A fire consuming trees in Manicoré in the state of Amazonas, Brazil, on Monday. Source: AE/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

MORE THAN 80,000 fires have been detected in Brazil to date in 2019, with about half of those happening in August alone.

Over half of the fires are in the massive Amazon basin.

Some 60% of the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, is in Brazil.

The forest absorbs two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, about 5% of the world’s annual emissions. 

There is huge concern about the local, national and international impact of the fires amid the global climate change crisis.

Here, we look at what is going on and why it matters.

How many fires are we talking about?

Some 83,329 fires have been reported in Brazil this year, according to the most recent figures from Brazilian space research agency INPE

fires Source: INPE

The overall figure is the highest since records began in 2013, and marks an 84% increase on the same period last year.

Over 1,650 new fires were started on Sunday and Monday alone.

According to the INPE, trees were being cleared at the rate of five football pitches every minute last month.

In July, 2,254 sq km of forest were lost, a rise of 278% on the same month in 2018.

Oxygen and misinformation 

Some reports have suggested that the fires threaten the atmospheric oxygen we breathe.

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted last week that “the Amazon rainforest – the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire”.

The oft-repeated claim that the Amazon rainforest produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen is based on a misunderstanding. The actual figure is closer to 6%.

Also, some photographs purporting to show this year’s fires are not in fact from 2019.

The above image tweeted by Macron is at least 16 years old. It was taken by the American photojournalist Loren McIntyre, known for his work for National Geographic, who died in 2003.

Nearly all of Earth’s breathable oxygen originated in oceans, and there is enough of it to last for millions of years, according to experts.

“There are many reasons to be appalled by this year’s Amazon fires, but depleting the Earth’s oxygen supply is not one of them,” Scott Denning of Colorado State University said. 

However, the fires are alarming for many reasons. Tropical rainforests like the Amazon are home to many species of plants and animals found nowhere else.

They also contain enormous stores of carbon that, if released, would negatively contribute to the climate crisis.

Many people in Brazil have been taken to hospital with respiratory problems and other issues connected to smoke inhalation. 

‘Tipping point’ 

The fires tearing through the Amazon represent a “tipping point” for the health of the rainforest, the head of a top global forestry management body said today, urging the world to do more to save the trees.

The situation in the Amazon is “very urgent”, Gerhard Dieterle, executive director of the International Tropical Timber Organisation, an intergovernmental agency group that promotes sustainable forestry use, said. 

“This is something that might affect the integrity of the Amazon as a whole, because if the forest fires spread, the grasslands become more prone to forest fires,” Dieterle told AFP. 

If tropical dense forests are affected by forest fires, they need many, many years to regroup. It will alter the climate, the local climate, the national climate and the regional climate. It will also have an influence on the global climate.

What is causing the fires?

Some of the fires started due to natural causes, but the majority have been set on purpose by farmers and mining and lumber companies who wish to clear land; they have been encouraged to do so by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Illegal land-grabbers also burn trees in an attempt to raise the value of the land they seize.

The Amazon is currently in its dry season, causing many of the fires to spread out of control.

Bolsonaro has said he is committed to protecting the Amazon and prosecuting anyone involved in illegal fires. However, he initially, and without proof, accused activists and NGOs of starting some of the fires in an effort to damage the credibility of his administration.

Bolsonaro is a climate change sceptic and his government has called for looser environmental regulations in the Amazon in a bid to spur development. People in the northern state of Para reportedly held a “day of fire” on 10 August in a show of support for his efforts to weaken environmental protection monitoring in the region.

However, protesters have also taken to the streets across Brazil to criticise government inaction over the fires. The army has been deployed in some areas in a bid to tackle the blazes but critics say this is too little, too late. 

Bolsonaro recently said Brazil will stay in the Paris climate change accord “for now”, leading to international criticism. The far-right leader is not impressed with what he perceived to be interference in his country’s affairs.

What are world leaders doing?

Leaders at the G7 summit this week pledged to donate $20 million (about €18 million) to help combat the blazes, as well as separate offers of $12 million (€10.8 million)  from Britain and $11 million (€10 million) from Canada.

Millions have also been raised through fundraising efforts by NGOs and celebrities such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio who donated $5 million (€4.5 million). 

Bolsonaro initially rejected the G7 offer, taking issue with Macron.

The French president, who has criticised Bolsonaro’s environmental record, called for the fires to be discussed at the recent G7 summit in Biarritz.

In response, the Brazilian leader mocked the appearance of Brigitte Macron, France’s first lady, on Facebook – a moved deemed “extraordinarily rude” by her husband.

“We have nothing against the G7. We have something against one of the G7’s presidents,” Bolsonaro told a summit of Brazilian governors this week. Yesterday he said he was open to discussing G7 aid if Macron “withdraws insults” made against him.

To talk or accept anything from France, with the best possible intentions, (Macron) has to withdraw these words, and from there we can talk.

Bolsonaro later appeared to change his approach somewhat. His spokesperson Otavio Rego Barros told reporters: “The Brazilian government through President Bolsonaro is open to receiving financial support from organisations and even countries.

“The essential point is that this money, on entering Brazil, will be under the control of the Brazilian people.”

Bolsonaro can rely on the support of at least one world leader – US President Donald Trump, who tweeted that he “is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil”.

Trump, another climate change sceptic, announced the US’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement in 2017.

In his response to Trump’s tweet, Bolsonaro said Brazilian authorities are “fighting the wildfires with great success”, adding that reports to the contrary are part of a “fake news campaign”.

Closer to home, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week threatened that Ireland will vote against the controversial Mercosur trade deal unless Brazil takes steps to protect the Amazon.

“There is no way that Ireland will vote for the EU-Mercosur free trade agreement if Brazil does not honour its environmental commitments,” Varadkar said in a statement.

“President Bolsonaro’s efforts to blame the fires on environmental NGOs is Orwellian,” Varadkar added. 

Contains reporting from © AFP 2019 and Associated Press 

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Órla Ryan

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