Brazil's Environmentalists Worry Fire Season Will Worsen Amazon's Deforestation
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
A year ago, there was an international outcry over a surge in the number of fires in the Brazilian Amazon. Now, as fire season gets underway there, the rainforest is facing the threat of even more destruction. In the first 10 days of this month, more than 10,000 fires were detected. NPR's Philip Reeves says that number's up from last year.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Fire season in the Amazon is off to a terrible start. Brazil's environmentalists are worried, its president is not.
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PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Non-English language spoken).
REEVES: "This story that the Amazon is going up in flames is a lie," says Jair Bolsonaro. "We must combat this with true numbers," he says. The numbers that Bolsonaro dismisses as a lie come from satellite data collected by Brazil's space research agency. These show fires in the first 10 days of this month are up on the same time last year by 17%. There's also plenty of evidence on the ground.
FLAVIO TERASSINI: (Non-English language spoken).
REEVES: Flavio Terassini lives in Porto Velho, a city in the Amazon state of Rondonia. He teaches biology at a local university. Terassini's on his porch when NPR reaches him by WhatsApp.
TERASSINI: (Non-English language spoken).
REEVES: He says he's holding pieces of gold and leaves in his hand that have drifted in from the forest. He can see a lot of smoke on the horizon, he says. It's making the sun look red.
JANE DWYER: Here in Anapu, there are fires all around us. Ash is falling in our homes, which it does every year.
REEVES: Jane Dwyer is an American-born Catholic nun who's taken Brazilian nationality. Anapu is a small town in the forest by a river that eventually flows into the Amazon. She's been there for decades, helping impoverished farmers protect their land rights. Sister Dwyer says the fires there haven't yet reached frightening levels.
DWYER: But what is frightening is that the forest is coming down.
REEVES: She's talking about illegal loggers. Even in a pandemic, they're cutting down trees. Dwyer says she can hear them.
DWYER: Sure, we can hear it. We live where the road is. They take it down during the day, and at night, the trucks are going - every single night.
REEVES: Last August was the worst month for fires in the Brazilian Amazon in nearly a decade. Many of these are deliberately set by farmers clearing already deforested land for cattle. Deforestation rose in the 12 months to July by a third on the year before, so there's more land to burn. International pressure on Bolsonaro is growing. Foreign investors are threatening to pull funds from Brazil unless he does a far better job of protecting the forest. Bolsonaro is defending his government's performance.
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BOLSONARO: (Non-English language spoken).
REEVES: "We're doing a tremendous amount," he says. He points to the fact that deforestation dipped for the month of July. In May, Bolsonaro sent thousands of army troops to the forest to help police it. It's too soon to say that's making a difference. Since taking office, Bolsonaro has weakened government environmental protection agencies.
Ane Alencar of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute believes the army lacks the expertise to protect the Amazon.
ANE ALENCAR: We have institutions that have been dealing with that. They have a strategy to do that. So when you give that job to another institution, it seems like it has to start everything again.
REEVES: With the world focused on the coronavirus pandemic, environmentalists fear the destruction in the Amazon won't get the attention it deserves. Sister Jane Dwyer thinks, in her part of the forest, this year, it'll be even worse.
ALENCAR: It already is worse. There is more forest coming down this year than last, so the fires will be worse.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.
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