How bad are the fires in Brazil?

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything In It: fires in the Amazon rainforest.

Thousands of them are raging in Brazil. The cause, to use a big word often heard in environmental circles, is anthropogenic. That’s a fancy way of saying people started them.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And in Brazil’s already-tense political climate, those stressors on the actual environment have worsened the division between the country’s president and environmental activists. WORLD correspondent Katie Gaultney joins us now to talk about the fires and the political furor surrounding them. 

Katie, how serious is this?

KATIE GAULTNEY, REPORTER: Well, it’s serious. The Amazon is an important source of the world’s oxygen, and it’s home to about 10 percent of known species. So we don’t want it to burn down. But I think the question is, is it actually burning down? Or has it become sort of a pawn in Brazil’s political chess match?

REICHARD: Interesting. Well let’s back up before we go there: How did the fires start?

GAULTNEY: Environmentalists are pointing the finger at the agriculture industry, primarily cattle ranchers and loggers. They routinely set fires to clear land in the rainforest for grazing. There is also some tree loss from farming and mining. This deforestation process, despite sounding pretty cavalier, isn’t actually all that unusual. Most of it is illegal, but prohibitions haven’t been strictly enforced. Ranchers and loggers do this every year, so it’s not necessarily surprising that these areas are burning. What is surprising is the number of reported fires: about 75,000 since January. By many estimates, that’s about 80 percent higher than the number of fires that burned last year. But—and this is important context—it’s only about 7 percent higher than the average over the last 10 years. 

REICHARD: And where does the political part come in? 

GAULTNEY: That’s where this all gets, well, “heated.” Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro—He’s kind of Trump-esque: bombastic, brash, very pro-business, and—notably here—a climate change skeptic. He’s already divisive, just on a normal day. But environmentalists say the president’s anti-climate science rhetoric has emboldened cattle ranchers and loggers. Activists are saying his pro-business focus is responsible for the deforestation activities. So Bolsanaro hit back, saying pro-environment NGOs started the fires to make him and his administration look bad, and to retaliate against funding cuts. The head of Brazil’s space program stepped down—or was forced out—after defending his agency’s data—numbers he said show rapid deforestation this year. Bolsonaro has also called out leaders of foreign governments for publicly expressing concern about the fate of the rainforest.

REICHARD: At the risk of oversimplifying this, who’s right? The environmentalists? The pro-business contingents? Maybe a little of both? 

GAULTNEY: Neither are really helping their cases. Both sides are being hyperbolic, to say the least. Let’s start with the environmental factions. Or most media outlets, for that matter. We see headlines saying that there’s a record number of fires burning, it’s unprecedented, higher than ever, and so on. But NASA has said that overall, the number of fires is actually slightly below average. They’re higher in some regions, and lower in others. And then Bolsonaro’s accusations, about environmental groups starting the fires to disgrace his administration, are just totally unfounded.

REICHARD: It sounds like there’re a lot of mixed messages out there. A lot of uncertainty. 

GAULTNEY: Right. All of this—whether more fires, fewer, or about the same—is pretty hard to quantify as the fires are active. What is quantifiable is that the number of deforestation alerts sent out from Brazil’s space agency have increased. The agency uses satellite data to track tree loss, and it said in June of this year, the Amazon lost about 355 square miles of rainforest. That’s out of a total of 2.1 million square miles of Amazon rainforest. But those deforestation numbers are verified annually and highly subject to change. Of course, we don’t want to lose the rainforest. And it does appear that ranchers and loggers have made indigenous territories a prime target, pushing out native people groups. That’s despicable. But you have to wonder if the fire activity is all that much worse than every year prior, or if this is just another hot-button issue that is being used for political manipulation.

REICHARD: Well, it seems likely the political debate may rage on, but what can we expect for the fires? Is Brazil making an effort to contain them?

GAULTNEY: Bolsonaro has said his country doesn’t have adequate resources to battle the fires. It’s the rainforest, so you’d think it would be hard for the fires to rage on, with all that moisture. But this is the dry season, and drought conditions in recent years mean they won’t dwindle easily. Brazil’s neighbors Bolivia and Venezuela have offered aid, and several celebrities and European countries have pledged funds or called for action.

REICHARD: I guess we’ll see if all the talk and dollars translates to actual results. Meanwhile, we can pray for the safety of the people of Brazil, and the containment of the wildfires. Katie Gaultney, thank you for bringing us this report.

GAULTNEY: You’re welcome, Mary.

(AP Photo/Eraldo Peres) A firefighter works to put out fires along the road to Jacunda National Forest, near the city of Porto Velho in the Vila Nova Samuel region which is part of Brazil’s Amazon, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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