The Amazon rainforest in Brazil is burning. Who started the fires? | The Fact Checker

The Amazon rainforest in Brazil is burning. Who started the fires? | The Fact Checker

October 14, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


-Fires tearing through
central Brazil and the Amazon rain
forest region destroying thousands
of miles of forest. -The Amazon rain forest
continues to burn. -The record number of fires
ravaging the rain forest has sparked
international concern. -Stop the fire!
-As the Amazon burns, it seems like everyone is
in search of someone to blame. -I am under the impression that
it could’ve been set by the NGOs because they had asked
for money. -The Amazon, you opened with it. In reality, that’s directly
related to trade. -But who or what is responsible? Fires in the Amazon occur
every year, but natural ones
are extremely rare. It’s the rain forest, after all. They’re normally started by
people clearing land for farming, ranching,
mining, and infrastructure, which isn’t unique
to the Amazon. We see managed burns
throughout the world, and, often, where you see
deforestation, you see fire. What fluctuates
is how many fires. -2019 has more fire activity
than we’ve seen in a year since 2010 up until this point
in the dry season. It’s not a record year,
but it is remarkable, remarkable because it is a departure
from the successes that Brazil in particular
had achieved in terms of reducing
deforestation rates and minimizing
the threat of fires. -Deforestation and land
management fires are set every year
during the dry season from August through October,
and like many natural resources, the Amazon is caught
in a tug of war between economic growth
and environmental protections. And in that war, politics
almost always comes into play. About 60% of the Amazon
lies within Brazil. That means environmental laws
have fluctuated as the Brazilian economy, pressures from
the international community, and administrations
have changed. -2004, the Brazilian government,
then under President Lula, launched a national action
plan to deal with deforestation. In 2004 to about 2014,
it was a massive success and was a real reduction
in the rates of deforestation. 2015 and 2016, Brazil had
a very deep recession. So, in 2015, we started to see
deforestation rates rise again, and they continued to rise
through 2016 and 2017. 2018, the situation
kind of died down a bit, but then came
the electoral campaign. -Bolsonaro!
-Bolsonaro! -Brazil’s right-wing
populist candidate sometimes likened
to Donald Trump winning the presidency
Sunday night in that country’s most
polarizing election in decades. -His criticism has emboldened
loggers and ranchers seeking to profit
from deforestation. -This is part of a trend,
this increasing forest loss. Now we have a new government
in there that is overtly pro expansion and the use of the Amazon forest
for development. -So, fires in the Amazon
are nothing new, but this year has raised alarms,
and there’ve been all kinds of theories
to explain what’s going on. Some have pointed
to the weather, but these fires look different that what we would see
if climate were the main factor. -What we’ve seen so far
are fires that are in the locations we expect
to see fires for deforestation, and they’re early
in the dry season, which tends to be more motivated
by economic pressures rather than climate conditions. -Bolsonaro said it could’ve
been the NGOs. -I am under the impression that it could’ve been
set by the NGOs because they had
asked for money. What was their intention? To bring about problems
for Brazil. -We spoke with Brazilian
fact checkers who told us there’s
no basis for his claim. -First, he decided the NGOs
were behind the fires, then decided maybe
what you had was the farmers, and then he changed
his version again, so we tried to point out these
contradictions and the fact that he hadn’t shown any
evidence to support this claim. -Others have
suggested fluctuations in international trade. -You know, the fact that
US farmers can sell soybeans to China has created
an opportunity for Brazil to sell soybeans to China,
and as a result, farmers are tearing down
the Amazon to grow soybeans. -With the help of University
of Maryland, we compare where crops,
including soybeans, are planted to the location of
this year’s deforestation fires, and they don’t line up. -If you’re a big soy producer,
there’s so much intensification around the larger
agro-industrial farms that fire’s not a thing, really. So, when you look at those maps where the crops are
and where the fire is, the fire is very removed along
the frontier with the Amazon. Clearly, related to some of
their land use, likely cattle-ranching
expansion. Most of the crop expansion
is happening in the Cerrado. It’s not happening
in the Amazon. -That doesn’t mean that we
can say in complete confidence that increased interest
in Brazilian soybeans hasn’t inspired some smaller
actors to clear more land. -In August 5th,
a Brazilian newspaper reported an organized day
of burning called “Fire Day” scheduled for August 10th. -IBAMA is the Brazilian
environmental protection agency that is tasked with
stopping deforestation fires in the Amazon. A federal prosecutor reported
that IBAMA was ordered
to stop these fires, but the state police
refused its support. -This is the region of Novo
Progresso where much of that
coordinated fire activity was scheduled for August 10th. This is an area that does show
an increase in fire activity on that day and then continuing afterwards
across the southern Amazon that actually is the start
of increased regional fire activity. -The thing is this is one tiny
corner of the Amazon, and the Amazon is huge. But it does give us a clue
to what’s happening. The timing of these fires
suggests that they were started by people who wanted to clear
as much land as quickly as possible. This kind of uptick happens
when there is less regulation and can be brought on
by an economic downturn or changes
to government policy. Bolsonaro’s ambivalence towards
environmental protections may not have directly lit
the first match, but it was a nod of approval
to those that did. In other words, the majority
of the fires were likely started by the same kinds of people
who were behind Fire Day. The fires are still burning, and
the dry season is not over yet. Even when the fires do stop,
the damage will be lasting, making the forest
more vulnerable to fires in coming years. If there’s statements you’ve
heard politicians say that don’t quite make sense
at rallies, state fairs, and that one friend’s feed,
let us know. Send us a note or a tweet
with what they said and your question. We’ll check it out.
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