SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — The Amazon rainforest, one of the largest ecosystems in the world, has been burning for weeks due to what experts are calling a "record number of fires".
A normal afternoon in the metropolitan city of São Paulo usually comes with a bit of sunshine, safe for the occasional overcast day. On Monday, however, residents of the city were met with pitch-black skies, as though day had turned into night at only 4 p.m.
It wasn't an incoming storm or the apocalypse... at least not yet. The thick plume of smoke coating the air was coming from the massive ongoing fires in the Amazon forest, located over 2,700km (1,700 miles) away from São Paulo.
These fires, however, are anything but accidental.
The Brazilian Institute for Space Research (Inpe) says the rainforest has seen a record number of fires this year alone. According to the Inpe, their satellite data shows an increase of 83% from the same period last year.
Inpe's data shows 72,843 fires have been detected in 2019 so far.
According to their satellite images, Inpe said they observed 9,507 new forest fires in the country since Thursday, mainly near and in the Amazon basin.
Home to about three million species of plants and animals and one million indigenous people, the Amazon rainforest has been at the center of climate change debates for years.
As the largest tropical forest in the world, the Amazon is vital to slowing down the rate of global warming and produces at least 20% of the world's oxygen.
Ever since taking office in Jan. 2019, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro has cracked down on environmental policies, a move that has drawn a lot of concern and criticism.
Deforestation of the Amazon has been a growing concern for years, but the Bolsonaro administration's recently-implemented environmental policies tend to favor development over conservation. Scientists say the Amazon has suffered immense losses since Bolsonaro took office.
While wildfires are common in the dry season, many are intentionally set by farmers to clear forest land to make space for cattle farming.
Intentionally set fires by local farmers, known in Brazil as "queimadas" are commonplace despite being dangerous. The dry season helps spread the flames and makes it easier to clear large amounts of land, but often times these fires burn out of control.
Upon taking office, Bolsonaro vowed to focus on developing the Amazon region for farming and mining, one of the promises he made claiming it would bolster the country's economy. Bolsonaro lifted restrictions on burning forest land to clear space for pastures earlier this year.
Bolsonaro has since challenged Inpe's data on the scale of the deforestation, accusing the organization's director of lying in order to undermine the government. This came after data was published by the Inpe in June pointing to an 88% increase in deforestation in the Amazon in comparison to the same time last year.
Shortly after, the director of the agency, Ricardo Galvão, suddenly left the organization, according to Brazil's ministry of science and technology. It was not made clear whether Galvão quit or was fired.
Inpe's data and annual reports have a 95% accuracy rate, according to the agency. Experts say that, if anything, the agency's data errs on the conservative side.
The fires, which have spread throughout the northern part of Brazil have also started to affect nearby countries such as Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay, where the smoke has spread throughout most of South America and even parts of Central America.
On Monday afternoon, while pitch-black skies confused the people underneath them, satellite images captured by several different companies and agencies - including NASA - detected dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide in the states of Acre, Rondônia, Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul.
The same satellite images showed a strong curtain of smoke inching closer and closed to the central and southern states. The local communities and indigenous populations in the northern part of the country were severely affected by the smoke, many reporting difficulties breathing and low visibility.
In a video published to Twitter, an indigenous woman can be seen pointing to the fires in her tribe's reservation in the background. She mentions how tribes in Brazil have been fighting for environmental protection for years highlighting how indigenous land is currently in jeopardy under Bolsonaro's new policies.
Brazil's northernmost state, Roraima, was depicted covered in dark, thick smoke by satellite images. The entire state of Amazonas declared a state of emergency over the fires.
Inpe data shows that, while fires are common this time of the year, the numbers registered so far are not in line with the average number of fires we should be seeing. Bolsonaro has since brushed off the data and claims this is normal as it is "queimada season" and farmers must clear land in order to further their businesses and livelihoods.
Dissatisfied with local coverage on the issue, many Brazilians are taking to the internet to voice their concerns over the deforestation. All over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, people have been tagging their posts with the hashtag #PrayForAmazonia.
On Monday afternoon, the hashtag started to trend on Brazilian Twitter, soon taking over the international trending charts. In the U.S., as of Wednesday morning, over 29,000 tweets with the hashtag #AmazonRainforest had been posted.
Bolsonaro has also stirred up controversy with foreign leaders, taking aim at Germany and Norway after both countries decided to cut funding for donations to Brazilian forestry projects in criticism of his environmental policies.
Foreign leaders across the globe have criticized Bolsonaro for his negligent approach to fighting deforestation. So far, Norway has been the biggest contributor in helping finance projects in the Amazon, donating $1.2 billion since 2008, followed by Germany at $68 million and Brazilian state oil giant Petrobras at $7.7 million.
From 2000 to 2017, the Amazon has lost an area bigger than the size of Germany of forest land, or 400 mil km².
The current rate of deforestation in the Amazon is between 15 and 17%, where experts say that if that number gets to 25%, the damage could be irreversible.
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