Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took power this year promising to open the Amazon rainforest to industry, roll back environmental and indigenous protections and stack his Cabinet with ideologues who dismiss climate change as a Marxist hoax.
But the record wildfires now raging in the Amazon offer a terrifying rebuke and serve as a stark reminder of what’s at stake as Bolsonaro’s policies allow ranchers, loggers and miners to destroy the world’s largest forest and repository of carbon dioxide at an unprecedented pace.
The blaze this week produced apocalyptic images as smoke billowed more than 1,800 miles southeast to blacken the daytime sky over São Paulo, the Western hemisphere’s biggest city. Video of an indigenous Pataxó woman shouting as orange flames engulfed her tribe’s reservation in Minas Gerais went viral.
It was only the latest of what new research this week found to be a record year for wildfires in the Amazon. Satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, or INPE, showed an 84% increase over the same period last year.
The disaster eerily paralleled the historic storms and wildfires that rocked the United States in 2017, just as President Donald Trump ― to whom Bolsonaro is often compared ― began his assault on environmental regulations and announced plans to withdraw from the Paris climate accords.
Fires are common in the Amazon during the region’s dry season, but this year has not been drier or windier than normal, experts have said, meaning many of the outbreaks have likely come from ranchers and farmers. And many environmental advocates have pointed to rapid destruction of the forest as the driver in the spread of the flames.
“It’s not a revenge of nature; it’s something very, very human,” said Nurit Bensusan, a top official at the Instituto Socioambiental, a Brasília-based nonprofit that advocates for conservation and indigenous rights. “It’s a sign of worse things to come.”