Over the last several days, the Amazon rainforest has been burning at a rate that has alarmed environmentalists and governments worldwide. Mostly caused by farmers clearing land, the fires have thrown the spotlight on Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies and anti-environment stance.

Where are the Amazon fires happening?
Started in the Amazonian rainforests, the fires have impacted populated areas in the north, such as the states of Rondônia and Acre, blocking sunlight and enveloping the region in smoke.

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has reported that forest fires in the region have doubled since 2013, and increased by 84% compared to the same period last year. This year alone there have been 72,843 fires, it said, and more than 9,500 of those have happened over the past few days.

How did the Amazon fires start?
President Bolsonaro’s anti-environment rhetoric has emboldened farmers. The local farmers had set fire to sections of the rainforest a few days ago to get the government’s attention. “We need to show the President that we want to work and the only way is to knock it down. And to form and clear our pastures, it is with fire,” Folha do Progresso quoted one farmer as saying.

The Amazon fires are so large that they are visible from space. NASA released images on August 11 showing the spread of fires and reported that its satellites had detected heightened fire activity in July and August.

Why are the Amazon fires a cause for concern?
The Amazon rainforest is a repository of rich biodiversity and produces approximately 20 per cent of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. It is also home to indigenous communities whose lives and homelands are under threat due to encroachment by the Brazil government, foreign corporations and governments with economic interests in the resource-rich region, and local farmers.

What environmental protections do Brazil’s laws provide, and what has changed in recent times?
Under Brazil’s Forest Code of 1965, farmers could purchase Amazon land but could farm only 20% of it. Following the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1988, a new constitution gave indigenous populations legal ownership of their land and the right to reject development of their land. In 2012, the Forest Code was revised to reduce the area of deforested land required to be restored, and to reduce penalties for illegal deforesting. In 2018, Brazil’s Supreme Court upheld these changes.

Bolsonaro, who took office in January 2019, had promised during his election campaign that his government would open up the Amazon region for business. The Amazon has large reserves of gold and other minerals. Along with aggressive policies of promoting agribusiness, Bolsonaro has opposed protections for indigenous tribal land.

After the election victory, Bolsonaro was quoted as saying: “Brazil should not sit on its natural reserves because a handful of Indians want to conserve it.”

Conservationists believe that for Brazil’s government, short-term economic interests pushed by lobbies take precedence over environmental concerns.

How has the international community reacted?
Germany and Norway have suspended funding for programmes that aim to stop deforestation in the Amazon and have accused Brazil of doing little to protect the forests. Indigenous groups and environment activists have led protests and criticised Bolsonaro for his comments and policies.