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Amazon rainforest fires sharply increased in June – raising concerns about a repeat of last year's devastation

Complicit: The Amazon Fires
Complicit: The Amazon Fires 22:58

The number of fires in the Amazon jumped 20 percent this June compared to June last year, raising concerns that the rainforest could see a repeat of last year's destructive fires.

INPE, Brazil's government space research agency, detected 2,248 fires in June this year, a 13-year high for the month, according to Reuters. Last June, 1,880 fires were detected.

In June 2020, researchers saw an average of 75 fires a day in the Amazon. Last August, during the peak of the massive forest fires that caused global outcry, there were about 1,000 fires detected per day.

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Aerial picture showing a fire in a piece of land in the Amazon rainforest, about 65 km from Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia, in northern Brazil, on August 23, 2019.  Carl De Souza / AFP/Getty Images

While the fires are not yet as bad as last year's, health experts are especially concerned due to the global coronavirus pandemic, Reuters reports. The smoke can cause respiratory problems, which could result in added complications for COVID-19 patients.

"It's a bad sign, but what really is going to count is what happens from now on," Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at Brazil's National Institute of Amazonian Research, said, according to Reuters.

Fearnside said rising deforestation is a concern. With deforestation, fires are usually set to clear land when trees are cut down to create pastures.

Preliminary INPE data from the first five months of 2020 shows deforestation is up 34 percent, Reuters says.

Most of the 2019 fires were attributed to both legal and illegal deforestation – and the problem is intensifying. In 2019, the number of fires in the Amazon rose over 30% from the previous year, and fires more than doubled since 2013, according INPE, which documented the deforestation in satellite photos.

The Brazilian government is accused by some environmentalists of emboldening farmers and ranchers to practice deforestation and start fires, which have ultimately lead to mass destruction in the rainforest.

Amazon Watch, a group that works to protect the rainforest and the indigenous people of the Amazon, called last year's forest fires an "international tragedy."

"This devastation is directly related to President Bolsonaro's anti-environmental rhetoric, which erroneously frames forest protections and human rights as impediments to Brazil's economic growth," said Amazon Watch program director Christian Poirier in a statement on the group's website last year. 

In an attempt to defend their actions and livelihood as they face attacks for starting the fires, many farmers made unsubstantiated claims that the fires were overplayed in the media.

Brazilian journalists have also reported on a misinformation campaign they said was supported by Mr. Bolsonaro's right-wing populist government. The messages were designed to persuade citizens to reject the INPE's findings and to dismiss reports of widespread fires as propaganda and foreign meddling, in order to gain popular support for policies to increase deforestation and development.

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