How bad are the Amazon fires and how is the crisis affecting the rest of the world?

Concern is rapidly growing worldwide over the raging fires destroying the Amazon rainforest in South America.

Official figures show nearly 73,000 forest fires, most of which were in the Amazon, were recorded in Brazil in the first eight months of the year – the highest number for any year since 2013.

While accused of belatedly taking note of the devastating fires that have been burning for weeks, the rest of the world has now taken a stand and announced immediate action is needed.

France's President Emmanuel Macron said the wildfires were "an international crisis" and called on the globe's most industrialised nations to address it at their summit this weekend.

A map of the ongoing fires in Brazil. Source: AFP

But Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the issue and suggested interference from other countries isn’t welcome.

“There always was and always will be burnings. Unfortunately, this has always happened in the Amazon," Bolsonaro said, referring to dry season, land-clearing fires.

How serious are the Amazon fires?

According to Macron, whose vocal stance on the matter comes just months after the world watched in horror as Paris’ historic Notre Dame came close to burning down, the fires are an emergency of the highest order.

"Our house is on fire. Literally. The Amazon, the lung of our planet which produces 20 percent of our oxygen is burning," Macron said on Twitter.

There are concerns fires in the Amazon rainforest could impact the world. Source: Reuters

UN chief Antonio Guterres echoed Macron’s sentiment, saying he was "deeply concerned" by the fires.

"In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity," he said on Twitter.

"The Amazon must be protected."

According to the National Institute for Space Research, satellite data shows an 85 per cent increase of fires across Brazil in the same period in 2018.

There are roughly 2500 fires currently burning in the Amazon.

The extent of the area damaged by fires has yet to be determined, but smoke has choked Sao Paulo and several other Brazilian cities in the past week.

The rainforest, the largest in the world, is a major player in the progression of climate change globally.

The Amazon absorbs heat instead of it being reflected back into the atmosphere.

Your average Joe will be able to tell you that trees take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

When this is done on such a large scale like the Amazon, its role in carbon emissions is hugely significant, playing a huge role in decelerating climate change, scientists say.

However fires in the Amazon are common every year in Brazil, especially during the dry season between July and October.

Some are naturally occurring while many are caused by farmers and loggers in what has become highly contentious deforestation methods.

Fire is seen by many as a quick method to clear rainforest, with illegal burns becoming more common.

Are Brazil doing enough to prevent the fires?

Bolsonaro has been accused of not doing enough to prevent the fires, claims which he has strongly refuted.

Former Brazilian environment minister and presidential candidate Marina Silva on Thursday called wildfires raging in the Amazon rainforest a "crime against humanity" and blamed current policies for fuelling the blazes.

Flames are raging along the BR364 highway in Guajara-Mirim, Rondonia, the northern Brazilian state close to the amazon forest. Source: Reuters

She and other environmentalists have blamed the Amazon's plight on cuts to environmental protections under right-wing Bolsonaro, who took office in January riding a wave of populist support for his anti-corruption campaign.

"It's a situation I regard to be a crime against the homeland, a crime against humanity," Silva, a former senator, said.

"Throughout Brazil's history we have had difficult situations, but this is the first time we have a situation that was practically and officially fuelled by the government," she added.

Bolsonaro instead attributes the fires to increased drought, and accuses environmental groups and NGOs of whipping up an "environmental psychosis" to harm Brazil's economic interests.

Smoke billows from a fire in the Amazon rainforest. Source: Reuters

"This environmental psychosis lets you do nothing," the president lamented, adding that it was hampering the country's development.

"I don't want to finish the environment, I want to save Brazil," said Bolsonaro, a climate change skeptic who had advocated opening up tribal lands and protected areas to farming and mining interests since assuming office in January.

Bolsonaro blames non-government groups and media for fires

Bolsonaro said there was a "very strong" indication that some non-governmental groups could be setting blazes in retaliation for losing state funds under his administration. He did not provide any evidence.

Bolsonaro, who won election last year, also accused media organisations of exploiting the fires to undermine his government.

"Most of the media wants Brazil to end up like Venezuela," he said, referring to political and economic turbulence in the neighbouring South American country.

London-based Amnesty International blamed the Brazilian government for the fires, which have escalated international concern over the vast rainforest that is a major absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The rights group this year documented illegal land invasions and arson attacks near indigenous territories in the Amazon, including Rondonia state, where many fires are raging, said Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty's secretary general.

Smoke blankets trees in an area near the Amazon rainforest during a fire. Source: Reuters

"Instead of spreading outrageous lies or denying the scale of deforestation taking place, we urge the president to take immediate action to halt the progress of these fires," Naidoo said.

The WWF conservation group also challenged Bolsonaro's allegations about NGOs, saying they divert "the focus of attention from what really matters: the wellbeing of nature and the people of the Amazon."

Brazil contains about 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest, whose degradation could have severe consequences for global climate and rainfall.

Bolsonaro, who has said he wants to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms, won office after channelling outrage over the corruption scandals of the former government.

Filipe Martins, an adviser to Bolsonaro, said on Twitter that the Brazilian government is committed to fighting illegal deforestation and that many other countries are causing environmental damage.

The Amazon will be saved by Brazil and not "the empty, hysterical and misleading rhetoric of the mainstream media, transnational bureaucrats and NGOs," Martins said.

With wires

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