The Amazon burns as world leaders meet to discuss climate change

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Smokes rises from forest fires in Altamira, in Brazilian the Amazon basin state of Para, in late August 2019. AFP

The fires that burned through the Amazon rainforest last month sparked international outcry and offers of help, but as world leaders meet in New York, the planet’s largest rainforest remains engulfed in flames.

The latest satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) shows 131,600 fires burning since January within the country, where 60 per cent of the Amazon lies.

The fires, which are mostly caused by humans with the goal of clearing land for farming and cattle ranching, are having a grievous effect on the forest: the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has nearly doubled since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro came to power on January 1, with the equivalent of 110 football fields of land being cleared every hour.

“It’s sad to see Brazilians attacking me for fires in the Amazon as if they hadn’t always existed,” Bolsonaro wrote on Facebook Thursday.

We “remain below the average of the last 15 years. But I’m accused of being a Nero, who sets fires everywhere.”

Yet fires are at a seven-year high, according to Inpe data, and despite a slight drop at the start of the month, the number of active fires recorded in Brazil from the start of the year to September 19 was up 56 per cent over the same period in 2018. Nearly half of the blazes are in the Amazon.

Bolsonaro is a climate change sceptic, but last month he sent soldiers to help put out fires in the Amazon region after Brazil came under criticism at the Group of Seven (G7) summit, with the host French President Emmanuel Macron among the most outspoken detractors.

Under that deployment, which was renewed Friday for another month, nearly 7,000 soldiers and 16 aircraft are fighting both the flames and “deforestation and illegal mining,” Brazil’s defence ministry said.

Marcio Astrini, a Greenpeace official in Brazil, said the deployment is making little difference.

“We did a lot of fly-overs. We did not see anything happening on the ground, apart from the deforestation that is progressing. It’s tragic,” he said.

Experts sent by the US, logistical equipment from Japan, and four aircraft from Chile are all fighting the blazes, while firefighters sent from Israel have departed, the defence ministry said.

However, Bolsonaro has blanched at other international offers to help put out the fires, rejecting $20 million from the G7 and accusing members France and Germany of “buying” Brazil’s sovereignty.

On Monday, Macron will launch a “call for mobilisation” on the Amazon together with his counterparts Sebastian Pinera of Chile and Ivan Duque of Colombia during a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Brazil won’t attend the meeting, but Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, also a climate change sceptic, will appear at the UN’s climate summit on Monday, before travelling to Europe.

On Tuesday, Bolsonaro will make the opening speech at the UN General Assembly, in which he is expected to focus on the Amazon.

“I am preparing a rather objective speech, unlike my predecessor,” he wrote on Facebook, adding, “I’m going to get hit, you can be sure. The media always finds something to complain about”.