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In Brazil, Tens Of Thousands Of Fires Ravage Amazon Rainforest


Much of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil is being ravaged by fires right now, and those fires are spreading very quickly. Roughly half of the more than 74,000 fires in Brazil so far this year, much of them in the Amazon, ignited over just this past month. And while wildfires are typical in the summertime, Brazil's National Institute for Space Research is saying there's been an 80% increase in fires over the last year.

Reuters reporter Jake Spring is in Brasilia, Brazil, and joins me now. Hi there, Jake.

JAKE SPRING: Hi. Thanks for having me on.

GREENE: Thanks for coming on. You've seen some of these fires firsthand, right? What does it look like?

SPRING: So everywhere around the region, there's a thick cloud of smoke that hangs in the air, and it smells like charcoal or wood burning. We've seen fires that send pillars of smoke hundreds of feet into the air. They've been particularly striking at night. There's one fire we drove by almost every day over the course of a week, and it started as kind of a raging yellow bonfire near the road. And a few days later, it receded in the distance and cast an eerie orange glow into the sky several stories high. So we've seen fires, really, at every stage.

GREENE: I mean, people around the world are freaking out about this and seeing this. I mean, this - the Amazon is known as the lungs of the planet. This rainforest produces something like a fifth of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Like, is - how serious is this? I mean, could we all be at risk if these fires keep burning?

SPRING: So some studies have pointed to the fact that the Amazon could enter into a death spiral if too much of it is destroyed and it starts to dry out and convert from rainforest into savannah, which absorbs much less carbon dioxide, which could severely worsen the situation with climate change. Already, 20% of the forest has been destroyed over past decades. Some figures say 40% is destroyed, although more recently, the - much lower figures that this death spiral could be triggered.

GREENE: So what's being done to stop this? I mean, did you see firefighters or any effort to get things under control here?

SPRING: I only saw one truck rush by - a yellow truck with a fire prevention logo in my week there. It's not a united fire. The fires range from small pockets to those larger than a football field, but they're every few kilometers. It's not one front that they can send a bunch of firefighters to that I've seen, at least.

GREENE: Well - and there's a weird thing going on because it sounds like politics might be getting involved here. Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro has been criticized for his response to the fires. And he's even come back claiming, without evidence, that nongovernmental organizations might be setting them to retaliate for his policies. What is happening?

SPRING: So since his government came in on January 1, they've been using this rhetoric that's very suspicious of NGOs, saying that they're acting on behalf of international forces to undermine Brazil's sovereignty. So this rhetoric now is just a natural extension of that. And there has been some restriction of the Amazon Fund that funds NGOs.

GREENE: All right. That is Reuters journalist Jake Spring in Brazil, talking to us about these fires that are ravaging the Amazon rainforest right now. Jake, thanks so much for your reporting. We really appreciate it.

SPRING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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