As global leaders meet, the Amazon rainforest burns

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – The fires that burned through the Amazon rainforest last month sparked international outcry and offers of help, but as world leaders meet in New York, the planet's largest rainforest remains engulfed in flames.

The latest satellite data from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) shows 131,600 fires burning since January within the country, where 60% of the Amazon lies. (READ: Hundreds of new fires in Brazil as Amazon outrage grows)

The fires, which are mostly caused by humans with the goal of clearing land for farming and cattle ranching, are having a grievous effect on the forest: The rate of deforestation in the Amazon has nearly doubled since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro came to power on January 1, with the equivalent of 110 football fields of land being cleared every hour.

"It's sad to see Brazilians attacking me for fires in the Amazon, as if they hadn't always existed," Bolsonaro wrote on Facebook Thursday, September 19.

We "remain below the average of the last 15 years. But I'm accused of being a Nero, who sets fires everywhere." (READ: Brazil's Bolsonaro blames Amazon fires on NGOs as Twitter erupts)

Yet fires are at a 7-year high, according to INPE data, and despite a slight drop at the start of the month, the number of active fires recorded in Brazil from the start of the year to September 19 was up 56% over the same period in 2018. Nearly half of the blazes are in the Amazon.

Bolsonaro is a climate change skeptic, but last month he sent soldiers to help put out fires in the Amazon region after Brazil came under criticism at the G7 summit, with the host French President Emmanuel Macron among the most outspoken detractors.

Under that deployment, which was renewed Friday, September 20, for another month, nearly 7,000 soldiers and 16 aircraft are fighting both the flames and "deforestation and illegal mining," Brazil's defense ministry said. 

'I'm going to get hit' 

Marcio Astrini, a Greenpeace official in Brazil, said the deployment is making little difference.

"We did a lot of fly-overs. We did not see anything happening on the ground, apart from the deforestation that is progressing. It's tragic," he told AFP.

Experts sent by the United States, logistical equipment from Japan, and 4 aircraft from Chile are all fighting the blazes, while firefighters sent from Israel have departed, the defense ministry said.

Bolsonaro, however, has blanched at other international offers to help put out the fires, rejecting $20 million from the G7 and accusing members France and Germany of "buying" Brazil's sovereignty.

On Monday, September 23, Macron will launch a "call for mobilization" on the Amazon together with his counterparts Sebastian Pinera of Chile and Ivan Duque of Colombia during a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Brazil won't attend the meeting, but Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, also a climate change skeptic, will appear at the UN's climate summit on Monday, before traveling to Europe.

On Tuesday, September 24, Bolsonaro will make the opening speech at the UN General Assembly, in which he is expected to focus on the Amazon.

"I am preparing a rather objective speech, unlike my predecessor," he wrote on Facebook, adding, "I'm going to get hit, you can be sure. The media always finds something to complain about."

No end in sight 

Environmental groups have little faith that Bolsonaro will change tack.

The government "wants to show that it is doing the best for the forest. In fact, it is doing its utmost for deforestation," said Greenpeace's Astrini.

"Brazil is running a campaign to show that it is taking care of the Amazon. It's a lie," he said.

And there's little to suggest that the fires are abating.

Between September 18 and 19, the number of forest fires in Rondonia state jumped to 242 from 12 just the day before, an increase of 1,915%, according to the INPE.

Fears are also rising over the number of blazes in the Cerrado savanna, which account for a third of all the fires in Brazil.

And on Friday, the World Wide Fund for Nature warned of an "emergency situation in the biome" of the Pantanal wetland.

Fires have risen 351% since January in the Pantanal region, some 90% of which were set illegally. –