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Why it will take more than $20M to help Brazil put out Amazon fires

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Firefighters work 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 on Aug. 26, 2019. -
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Eraldo Peres
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An offer from the world's richest nations to help Brazil stamp out the Amazon fires with $20 million in aid is a goodwill gesture, but it will barely make a dent in preventing further destruction of the rainforest's vast and intricate ecosystem, observers who have studied the region say.

"Twenty-million dollars is a drop in the bucket," said Robert T. Walker, a University of Florida professor who has conducted environmental research in the Amazon for 25 years. "It's absurd to imagine logistically what effect it can have."

But the money and what it represents — a concerted effort to protect the Amazon, and by extension, the health of the planet — remains embroiled by the political gamesmanship between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The rancor was ratcheted up a notch this week when Bolsonaro appeared to comment on a Facebook post that mocked Macron's wife, drawing a rebuke from the French president.

On Tuesday, Bolsonaro was the one demanding an apology from Macron, and said he must retract past comments criticizing him before they can talk about Brazil accepting any money from global leaders, The Associated Press reported. Britain has also offered a separate $12 million in aid, while Canada has pledged another $11 million.

President Donald Trump has not offered any financial help, but tweeted Tuesday that Bolsonaro and Brazil have "the full and complete support" of the United States.

In turn, Bolsonaro tweeted: "We're fighting the wildfires with great success" and the "fake news campaign built against our sovereignty will not work."

Just how much money would be effective in the fight against the fires is unclear, but such an effort can cost governments billions of dollars a year.

In fiscal year 2017 — one of America's most destructive wildfire seasons on record — the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $2.4 billion in firefighting costs. California alone saw more than 505,000 acres scorched.

The fires in Brazil, where a majority of the Amazon is located, have swept across more than 4 million acres, according to government officials. In neighboring Bolivia, more than 1.8 million acres have burned.

Brazil is using its military to fight the fires in seven states and deployed warplanes to dump thousands of gallons of water in the state of Rondônia, near Bolivia.

Firefighters work 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 on Aug. 26, 2019.
Firefighters work 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 on Aug. 26, 2019.Eraldo Peres

This year to date, almost 80,000 fires have been observed across Brazil, the most since at least 2013, according to the country's National Institute for Space Research.

While some of the blazes are due to uncontrolled wildfires, environmental groups say that many are the work of farmers who are clearing land illegally to be used for cattle and agricultural farming. They say those farmers have become more emboldened under Bolsonaro, who took office in January with the view that developing the Amazon would propel Brazil's economy.

Most of the fires are starting in agricultural areas and are relatively easy to control and put out, said Rachael Garrett, an assistant professor of environmental policy at the Swiss university ETH Zürich and an expert in Brazilian land use. But when they escape from their intended locations, they grow much bigger.

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"These large fires are substantially more difficult to put out," she said, "especially when the agency in charge of fighting these fires has had their budget massively cut."

September is the peak of the current dry season, and experts worry the fires will only grow further out of control in the coming month.

Walker said fending off these fires is extremely difficult because of how spread out the Amazon is, how decentralized the blazes are and the rough terrain that doesn't easily allow for firetrucks on the ground.

"The nature of the beast in respect to fighting them is completely different" than in the U.S., he added.

Bolsonaro, who ran for president on a populist platform and antiglobalist wave, has generally rebuffed any aid from the international community, riding on the sentiment against the "colonialist mentality." Brazil is a former Portuguese colony.

To get through to everyday Brazilians, world leaders need to drive home the message of respecting Brazil's sovereignty, said Christie Klimas, associate professor of environmental science and studies at DePaul University in Chicago.

"Since the question of who owns the Amazon is a touch point in Brazil, it's definitely worth the international community acknowledging that theirs is a gesture to help our global neighbors in an area where lives and land may be lost," Klimas said.

But the idea that the Amazon must remain free from outside interests is misleading, given that Brazil's meat and soybean production have a global reach and transnational companies have a stake in the region — driving the Amazon's deforestation, Walker added.

Garrett said there's a larger issue that still needs to be addressed: How to change the behavior of farmers who use fires to clear lands because they lack access to modern-day machinery and fertilizer.

"It's very important that the international community acknowledges the reasons why farmers currently do what they do and offers to help them change their behaviors in ways that will improve farmers' well-being," she added. "Focusing only on telling farmers or Brazil at large what not to do and attempting to 'save' the Amazon without the cooperation of the farmers who live there just plays into the colonization narrative being put forward by Bolsonaro."