The number of forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon rose 28% last month compared to July 2019, according to satellite data released Saturday, fuelling fears that the world's largest rainforest could be devastated by fires again this year.
Brazil's National Space Institute, INPE, identified 6,803 fires in the Amazon region in July 2020, compared with 5,318 the previous year.
On July 30 alone, satellites detected 1,007 fires in the Amazon, INPE said. This was the worst day for a month of July since 2005, according to environmental NGO Greenpeace.
This figure is even more worrying for researchers because 2019 was a devastating year for the Amazon, provoking protests around the world.
As a result, pressure has increased on Brazil, ruled by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, to commit to doing more to protect this gigantic forest, which scientists believe is vital in the fight against climate change.
The fires are mainly aimed at illegally clearing land to make way for agriculture, cattle breeding or mining.
‘A thousand fires in a day’
Environmental activists accuse Bolsonaro, notoriously sceptical about climate change, of encouraging deforestation with calls to open up the rainforest to agriculture and industry.
“More than a thousand fires in a single day is a 15-year record and shows that the government's strategy of conducting media diversion operations is not working on the ground,” Greenpeace Brazil spokesperson Romulo Batista said in a statement.
President Bolsonaro has mobilised the army to fight the fires, but environmentalists believe he is not addressing the real causes of the fires and deforestation.
A spokesperson for Greenpeace Brazil explained that effectively fighting arson aimed at illegally clearing land would require other measures than those taken by the Brazilian authorities.
“In the texts, these fires are banned, but the ban only works if there is also a response on the ground, with more patrols. Criminals are not especially known for complying with the law,” said Batista.
In addition, the Bolsonaro administration has cut the budget, staff and programmes of Brazil's environmental agency, Ibama.
“Everything that worked was thrown out the window,” Erika Berenguer, an ecologist specialising in the Amazon who does research at the universities of Oxford and Lancaster, told AFP.
The fire season in the Amazon generally runs from June to October.
But fires are only one of the causes of deforestation. During the rest of the year, ranchers, farmers, miners and speculators "prepare" woodlands for later burning.
The first six months of 2020 were the period during which the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon was the highest since statistics have been compiled: according to INPE data, 3,069 square kilometres were razed.
If a significant part of these areas where trees have been cut down is burned in 2020, the situation could become catastrophic, experts warn.
In 2019, the number of fires had already increased by 200% in August from one year to the next, with 30,900 fires recorded.