A record level of fires in Brazil’s Amazon region has been linked to an increase in deforestation, inspiring a #prayforamazonia social media campaign to bring awareness to the blazes destroying the rainforest.
Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, a federal agency monitoring deforestation and wildfires, said the country has seen a record number of wildfires this year, counting 74,155 as of Tuesday, an 84 percent increase compared to the same period last year.
Satellite images from NASA showed several fires burning in the states of Rondônia, Amazonas, Pará, and Mato Grosso from Aug. 11 and 13.
The Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), a nongovernment organization focused on sustainable development of the Amazon, has linked the wildfires in the region to an increase in deforestation. The institute’s science director, Ane Alencar, noted Tuesday in an article on the organization's website a common but illegal deforestation tactic where fire is used to “clear” an area of the forest.
“There is no natural fire in the Amazon. What is there are people who practice burning, which can worsen and turn fires in the dry season, ” Alencar said. “Even in a less severe drought than in 2016, when we suffered from a very strong El Niño, the risk of fire escaping is high.”
Smoke from the flames has reached the Atlantic Coast of South America and crept into the extremely populous city of Sao Paulo, according to the European Union's Earth Observation Programme.
Videos from Sao Paulo showed darkened skies in the middle of the day as smoke filled the air.
IPAM researchers warned Tuesday of the public health risks as nearby cities fear the flames may trigger respiratory problems.
“The consequences for the population are huge. Air pollution causes disease and the economic impact can be high,” Paulo Moutinho, a senior researcher, said. “Combating deforestation, which is a vector of burning, and discouraging the use of fire to clear land are critical to ensuring the health of people and forests.”
Social media users concerned over the long-term environmental consequences of deforestation and fires in the Amazon region began the online campaign #prayforamazonia to bring awareness to the issue.
“I'm only finding out now that the Amazon Rainforest has been burning for while and it's so large it can be seen from space, sadly I have not seen much coverage on this, it's heartbreaking, hoping to bring more attention to it #prayforamazonia,” one user wrote.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro accused nongovernmental organizations of setting the fires to ruin his reputation, but did not have any evidence to back up the allegations.
"Maybe — I am not affirming it — these (ONG people) are carrying out some criminal actions to draw attention against me, against the government of Brazil," Bolsonaro said in a video posted on his Facebook account. "This is the war we are facing."
Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles are both close to the powerful rural caucus in Congress and have been urging more development and economic opportunities in the Amazon region, which they consider overly protected by current legislation.
Salles was booed Wednesday as he took the stage at a five-day United Nations workshop on climate change in the northern state of Bahia — an event he had tried to cancel earlier this year.
Some in the audience shouted while waving signs reading, "Stop Ecocide" or "The Amazon is burning."