Dramatic footage fuels fears Amazon fires could be worse than last year

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Dramatic new images have shown fires raging over wide areas of the Brazilian Amazon nearly a year after blazes across the region sparked an international crisis for the far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro.

The video images and photographs were filmed during a flight by Greenpeace over a wide area of forest in Mato Grosso state in the south of the Amazon on 9 July. Filmed just as the Amazon dry season was beginning, they raise fears that this year’s fires could be as devastating and perhaps worse than 2019’s.

“It was shocking to see the size of this deforestation and fires, at a time when the government is dismantling environment protection,” said Romulo Batista, senior Amazon campaigner for Greenpeace, who spent days flying over a wide area. “It is the beginning of the dry season and we saw fires and areas being prepared for deforestation.”

Some images showed hotspots in areas near the towns of Nova Canaa do Norte, Porto dos Gauchos, Itanhanga and Nova Maringa as well as areas recently converted to pasture – the biggest cause of deforestation in the Amazon. Other photos showed felled trees piled up for burning and fires raging near Juara, known as the cattle capital.

Fires in Alta Floresta, Mato Grosso state

Farmers traditionally burn cleared areas in the Amazon during the dry season. The number of fires last year was the highest since 2010.

“They fell the forest and let it dry under the sun. When it is dry they put it all together and set it on fire,” said Batista. The land is then turned over to cattle farming or agriculture. But Batista also saw signs that fire was being used to clear forest once valuable woods had been removed. Images show fires in intact forest near Alta Floresta. “We are seeing fire being used to deforest more and more,” said Batista.

Bolsonaro’s government, meanwhile, has dismantled environmental protection agencies sacking key officials, and reducing the amount of fines levied for environmental crimes by environment agency IBAMA last year to the lowest level in 24 years, the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper reported. Last year he sacked the head of Brazil’s space research institute after calling official figures showing rising deforestation “lies”.

However, he has promised to tackle the fires. On Thursday, Bolsonaro banned agricultural and forest fires for 120 days. His vice-president, Hamilton Mourao, is in charge of the country’s Amazon council and an army operation called Green Brazil launched on 11 May, which for the second year running is targeting illegal deforestation and fires.

“We started combating these fires early and we are sure we will reduce this illicit activity by the second semester of the year,” Mourao told the Brazilian senate on Tuesday. The north of Mato Grosso state was one of four areas suffering high deforestation, he said, along with Para and Rondonia states and the south of Amazonas state. Mourao’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the Greenpeace revelations.

But official data shows the Brazilian government’s efforts so far this year have failed to bring results. Brazil saw more fires in the Amazon this June than in any year since 2007. Brazil’s space research agency INPE spotted 2,248, compared with 1,880 in June last year. Preliminary data showed deforestation from January to June, at 3,069 sq km, was 25% up on the same period last year.

Forest remainders burning in Juara, Mato Grosso. Deforested area is mostly turned over to cattle farming or agriculture.

The Brazilian government is coming under increasing pressure from international investors and Brazilian companies.

On 23 June, international investors managing trillions of dollars in assets warned Brazil about escalating deforestation and the “dismantling” of policies to protect the environment and indigenous communities. On 7 July, CEOs of 39 companies including Microsoft, Ambev, Shell and leading banks like Santander expressed concerns over “the impact on business of the current negative perception Brazil has abroad in relation to socio-environmental issues in the Amazon”.

But Mourao has said that to control deforestation Brazil needs to regulate chaotic land ownership in the Amazon. The government plans a decree to allow 97,000 land titles to be regularised remotely which environmentalists say means rewarding land grabbers with legal titles.

In May, more than 40 British companies including leading supermarkets wrote to Brazilian lawmakers to express their concerns over fires and deforestation – and an earlier version of the same decree. Greenpeace said that British consumers need to show they do not agree with Amazon destruction.

“Those supermarkets will be judged on how they respond to this unfolding crisis. They all sell high volumes of industrial meat, much of which is connected to deforestation in forests like the Amazon,” said Anna Jones, head of forests at Greenpeace UK. “It’s time supermarkets dropped forest destroyers and replaced industrial meat with plant-based options.”

While Mourao has reached for a more moderate tone, Bolsonaro has doubled down on the same fiery rhetoric that last year saw him accuse the actor Leonardo DiCaprio of paying for fires without providing any evidence, and fall out publicly with France’s president, Emmanuel Macron. During Thursday night’s weekly Facebook Live, he said attacks on Brazil’s crumbling Amazon protection were motivated by commercial rivalry.

“Brazil is an agribusiness power and Europe is an environmental sect. They don’t preserve anything,” he said, “and they shoot at us the whole time unfairly. Why? It’s a commercial battle.”

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