World News

'The lungs of the Earth are in flames': Brazil faces global backlash over Amazon fires

Key Points
  • World leaders, environmental groups and celebrities have publicly decried the vast swaths of forest being destroyed by the fires.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron has described the phenomenon as an "international crisis" that needs to be top of the agenda at this weekend's Group of Seven (G-7) summit.
  • In response, Brazil's firebrand right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has angrily told foreign powers not to interfere with his country's sovereignty, despite admitting his country is not equipped to fight the fires.
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Record-breaking number of fires burn in Brazil's Amazon

The Amazon rainforest, often referred to as the lungs of the Earth, has been ravaged by a record number of fires this year, sparking global outrage over Brazil's environmental policies.

World leaders, environmental groups and celebrities have publicly decried the vast swaths of forest being destroyed by the fires, while satellite images of dark smoke billowing out of the Amazon has been shared on social media by space agency NASA.

An intensifying wave of international criticism comes shortly after Brazil's research center, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), reported that it had detected 72,843 fires in the world's largest rainforest so far this year.

That marked an 84% rise when compared to 2018 and the highest since records began in 2013.

What have world leaders said?

French President Emmanuel Macron has described the phenomenon as an "international crisis" that needs to be top of the agenda at this weekend's Group of Seven (G-7) summit.

"Our house is burning. Literally," Macron said via Twitter on Thursday, highlighting that the world's largest rainforest produces 20% of the world's oxygen.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he "couldn't agree more" with Macron's call to raise the issue at the G-7 summit, saying world leaders needed to act for the Amazon.

In response, Brazil's firebrand right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has angrily told foreign powers not to interfere with his country's sovereignty, despite admitting his country is not equipped to fight the fires.

He also accused non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of starting some of the fires, but admitted he had no evidence to support this claim.

On Twitter, Bolsonaro singled out Macron and accused him of sensationalizing the issue for personal political gain.

The long-time climate sceptic added that the prospect of the Amazon fires being discussed at the upcoming G-7 summit, without the participation of any Amazonian countries, evoked a "misplaced colonialist mindset."

What makes the Amazon unique?

The Amazon rainforest produces around 20% of the world's fresh water and serves as the habitat of more than 34 million people, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

It covers roughly 5.5 million square kilometers — about half the size of Europe.

"We have so much to lose with the Amazon burning and yet not enough action is being taken to stop its destruction!" the WWF said via Twitter.

The Amazon is critical in absorbing the planet's carbon dioxide — making it a vital bulwark against an intensifying climate crisis.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during a discussion on US-Brazil relations at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC on March 18, 2019.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

The United Nations (UN) has recognized climate change as "the defining issue of our time," with a recent report calling the crisis "the greatest challenge to sustainable development."

"In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity. The Amazon must be protected," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said via Twitter, adding that he was "deeply concerned" about the fires.

Actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio said in an Instagram post published Thursday that "the lungs of the Earth are in flames," calling on his 34 million followers to become more environmentally conscious.

What caused these fires?

Although fires in the Amazon basin are a regular and natural occurrence during the dry season at this time of the year, environmental activists have blamed the sharp rise on farmers setting alight clear land to pasture.

Richard Mello, head of the WWF Amazon Programme, told the BBC that the fires were "a consequence of the increase in deforestation seen in recent figures."

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, Brazil August 21, 2019.
REUTERS | Ueslei Marcelino

Bolsonaro, who came to power in January, has repeatedly said he believes Brazil should open the Amazon up to business interests. This would allow mining, agricultural and logging companies to exploit its natural resources.

During his campaign for president, Bolsonaro said he would seek to limit fines for damaging the Amazon and weaken the influence of the environment agency.

Brazil's president also warned he could withdraw the country from a landmark climate agreement restricting global efforts to cut carbon, saying the requirements of the Paris Agreement compromise Brazil's sovereignty over the Amazon region.