Wildfires raging in the Amazon rainforest have hit a record number this year, with 72,843 fires detected so far by Brazil’s space research center INPE.
Wildfires have increased in Mato Grosso and Para, two states where Brazil’s agricultural frontier has pushed into the Amazon basin and spurred deforestation. Wildfires are common in the dry season but are also deliberately set by farmers illegally deforesting land for cattle ranching.
The unprecedented surge in wildfires has occurred since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January vowing to develop the Amazon region for farming and mining, ignoring international concern over increased deforestation.
On Wednesday, in response to those concerns, Bolsonaro accused non-governmental organizations of burning down the Amazon rainforest to hurt his government.
“Everything indicates” that NGOs were going to the Amazon to “set fire” to the forest, Bolsonaro said in a Facebook Live broadcast. When asked if he had evidence to back up his claims, he said he had “no written plan”, adding “that’s not how it’s done”.
Presented without evidence and disputed by environmental and climate experts, Bolsonaro’s comments enraged critics and fanned a growing social media campaign over the dangers to the Amazon, one of the world’s key bulwarks against climate change.
Congressman Nilto Tatto, leader of the lower house environment caucus, said Bolsonaro’s “stunning” attack on NGOs was an attempt to obscure his administration’s destruction of 30 years of Brazilian environmental protections.
Climate scientist Carlos Nobre said farmers seeking to clear land for cattle pastures wait for the dry season when forests become combustible and then set them alight. He attributed this year’s spike to illegal deforestation since it has not been unusually dry.
#PrayforAmazonas was the world’s top trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday, and millions of people took to Instagram and Facebook to share concerns over the future of the Amazon. With global awareness growing, Bolsonaro’s comments risk creating a spiralling crisis for his government, imperiling an EU-Mercosur trade pact and upsetting key agribusiness clients.