Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday accused environmental groups of setting fires in the Amazon rainforest in response to growing international criticism of his failure to protect it, The Guardian reported.

There has been an estimated 83% increase in forest fires in the Amazon compared to the same time period in 2018, according to Reuters. Brazil’s space research center INPE said 72,843 wildfires have been detected so far. Since August 15, INPE said satellite images spotted 9,507 new forest fires, mostly in the Amazon basin. The rainforest – known as the world’s lungs – produces a fifth of the world’s oxygen, comprises at least 40% of Earth’s rainforests, and is home to three million species of plants and animals, and indigenous people. Preserving it is critical to the fight against global warming.

Asked about the fires, Bolsonaro said it was the time of the year for “queimada” or burn, when farmers use fire to clear land. “I used to be called Captain Chainsaw,” he said. “Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame. But it is the season of the queimada.”

The space agency, however, said the wildfires could not be attributed to the dry season or natural phenomena alone. “There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average,” INPE researcher Alberto Setzer told Reuters.

According to environmentalists and Bolsonaro’s critics, the fires in Amazon are connected to the president’s rollback of environmental protections of the rainforest. Part of Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign included promise to open up access to Brazil’s protected lands for commercial use. In less than a year since his election, the country has lost more than 3,445 square km of forest cover – 39% increase from the same time period in 2018. According to some estimates, Brazil lost 7,900 square km of Amazon forest, or nearly a billion trees, between August 2017 and July 2018.

The fires have prompted Norway and Germany to halt donations to Brazil’s Amazon fund, which supports many environmental NGOs and government agencies. The European Union has also been called on to block a trade deal with Brazil and other South American nations.

However, on Wednesday Bolsonaro blamed non-governmental organisations for the fire. “On the question of burning in the Amazon, which in my opinion may have been initiated by NGOs because they lost money, what is the intention?” he said at a steel industry event in Brasilia. “To bring problems to Brazil.”

Earlier in the day, he made a similar allegation, suggesting the groups had gone out with cameras and started fires so they could film them. Asked if he had evidence to back his allegation, Bolsonaro said there were no written records and it was just his feeling.

Also read: Under Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil is deforesting huge parts of the Amazon. Can the UN stop him?

Here are some images and videos of the wildfires:

An August 21 satellite image by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows smoke in the Brazilian states of Amazonas. (Photo credit: AFP)AFP

Now, follow and debate the day’s most significant stories on Scroll Exchange.