Brazil is burning. Still.

Despite massive international protests against fires and deforestation, the destruction of the Amazon continues unabated.

A firefighter is trying to stop a fire near a power plant in Lábrea in the state of Amazonas on August 8, 2020. The fires have had a drastic increase in the area during the month of August. Photo: Edmar Barros / Rainforest Foundation Norway

This time last year, the Amazon was burning with a force not seen in a decade. Satellite images and film of the flames licking tree trunks and smoking out huge areas, outraged the world. This year's figures are getting close to last year’s crisis. 

Over the past year, both national and international criticism of the Brazilian government has steadily increased. In May, the military was deployed to stop the fires. Following pressure from wealthy investors, led by Norwegian Storebrand, among others, the Brazilian authorities introduced a 120-day fire ban in July.

The latest satellite images from the Brazilian Space Research Institute (INPE) show that the measures, unfortunately, have had a limited effect on the forest. In the state of Amazonas alone, INPE registered 7600 fires in August. This is the highest number since 1998 and almost 1,000 more fires than last year.

This year, again, President Bolsonaro claimed that the fires in the Amazon were lies, and must be combated with correct numbers. However, the figures from his own government institutions are discouraging.

In total for the entire Amazon region, INPE registered 29,307 fires in August, which is the second highest number in ten years, and just below last year's 30,900 fires. A technical error means that some of the data from August is missing, and a senior researcher at INPE predicts that the number will probably be adjusted upwards and will thus exceed last year. Thus making this year's August fires the worst in ten years.

Photo: Edmar Barros / Rainforest Foundation Norway

The Amazon does not burn by itself

- The fires are the most spectacular part of the destruction of the rainforest, and much focus is put on them, but it is important to remember that they are closely linked to deforestation. They are an integral part of the processes of clearing and grabbing land and establishing land rights, says Ellen Hestnes Ribeiro, Head of the Brazil Programme in the Rainforest Foundation.

The preliminary figures from the monitoring system DETER, which is also operated by INPE, show that deforestation from August 2019 to July 2020 has increased by as much as 34 per cent compared to the same period last year.

At the same time, satellite image analysis from the independent MAAP project, shows that close to 80 percent of majorfires occur in newly deforested areas. Landowners want to convert areas they have deforested in the past year into pasture or cultivated land.

Cattle and soy are still the main drivers of deforestation. A report from Science in July reveals that 2 percent of landowners in the Amazon and Cerrado area are responsible for 62 percent of deforestation.

This should make it easy to control, but during their 20 months in power, the Brazilian government has systematically sought to undermine the protection mechanisms for the Amazon. They have tried to change the legislation, demolish environmental and indigenous institutions such as FUNAI, cut budgets for the environmental police IBAMA and dismiss key people in INPE.

Brazilian demands to European leaders

"The Brazilian president is hell-bent on opening up the forest to miners, cattle ranchers and loggers, at the expense of native Brazilians, biodiversity, and the global climate," writes Marcio Astrini, in an opinion piece in The Independent. He is the leader of the organisation Observatorio do Clima, which is one of the Rainforest Fund's partners in Brazil.

Astrini, along with a number of other Brazilian organisations, has made clear demands to European leaders: No agreements, neither the Mercosur free trade agreement, nor OECD membership, must be concluded with Brazil before concrete measures are taken to stop the attack on nature and indigenous people.

They are demanding a five-year complete halt to deforestation, the resumption of work on indigenous territories and other protected areas, stricter penalties for environmental crime such as the illegal acquisition of land, the resumption of work on the Deforestation Action Plan and the reconstruction of the three environmental and indigenous institutions dismantled by the current government.

- It is important to support the demands of Brazilian civil society. The international attention on deforestation and fires in the Amazon has left the Brazilian authorities feeling uneasy. Although the measures to limit the destruction are insufficient, the situation would have been much worse without the international involvement, says Ellen Hestnes Ribeiro, Head of the Brazil Program in the Rainforest Fund.