Brazilian Amazon fires surge in July

But fires are just part of the deforestation picture.

The rest of the year, ranchers, farmers, miners and land speculators are clearing forest and preparing to burn it.

The first six months of 2020 were the worst on record for deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, with 3,069 square kilometers (1,185 square miles) cleared, according to INPE data — an area bigger than the nation of Luxembourg.

If a significant portion of those felled trees burn in 2020, the result could be catastrophic, experts warn.

“I think August will be the make-or-break month,” said Berenguer.

Last year, the number of fires surged nearly 200 percent year-on-year in August, to 30,900, sending a thick haze of black smoke all the way to Sao Paulo, thousands of kilometers away, and causing worldwide alarm.

The number of fires has fallen since then, under increased scrutiny and pressure — including from companies and investors worried about the impact on Brazil’s brand.

But Berenguer said it was a matter of time before the newly deforested land went up in flames in the name of farming and ranching.

“It’s an economic investment to deforest. It’s expensive…. You need heavy machinery: bulldozers, tractors, people, diesel,” she said.

“You don’t deforest to leave all those trees on the ground. You need to burn it, because you need to recover your investment.”

Furthermore, US space agency NASA warned last month that warmer ocean surface temperatures in the North Atlantic mean the southern Amazon is facing a major drought this year.

It said that made “human-set fires used for agriculture and land clearing more prone to growing out of control and spreading.”

“Conditions are ripe,” it said.

Exacerbating the situation this year, experts say the resulting smoke risks causing a spike in respiratory emergencies in a region already hit hard by COVID-19.

Brazil has more infections and deaths from the new coronavirus than any country except the United States: more than 2.6 million and 92,000, respectively.

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