BRASILIA – Environmentalists accused the Brazilian government of doing too little to prevent and combat fires, set by farmers, that have cast a thick haze over cities and made people sick.
Satellite images showed a sharp jump in the number of hot spots – areas where there is a high probability that a fire is burning – in the last days of August in the west-central states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul.
A fire-induced haze has disrupted air traffic and triggered a rise in respiratory infections and other distress among people living in the area, especially children, state government officials said.
Roberto Smeraldi, head of a programme to protect the Amazon with Friends of the Earth, said the Environment Ministry failed to keep its promise earlier this year to put more emphasis on prevention and training programmes.
“This year the Environment Ministry seemed to be taking what we considered a more conscious, more forward-looking stance in terms of how to combat the fires, but this has failed to translate into practical measures,” he said.
Local officials said they did not have enough money and firefighters to battle the fires, which are traditionally set between July and October to prepare the soil for planting.
High rates of poverty and illiteracy in the mainly agricultural centre-west meant government efforts to highlight the dangers of setting unsupervised fires during the dry season had been largely ignored.
Activists also said the problem was made worse by a lack of federal money. The Environment Ministry’s budget was cut by a third as part of a sweeping government austerity programme.
“There is no money,” said Garo Batmanian, executive director in Brazil of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). “The rest of the government only acts, only realises that this is an issue, when the problem begins.”
Government officials were not immediately available to respond, but a local news agency said Environment Minister Jose Sarney Filho was irritated by the criticism.
“I didn’t know that the government was now responsible for the drought in Brazil,” Sarney Filho was quoted as saying by Agencia Estado.
Officials at the government’s Environment Agency (Ibama) said that hot spots across Brazil fell to 30,123 in August from 33,229 in August 1998, a reduction of 10 percent.
But environmental organisations said that figure was still too high.
“I would say the fires this year are more or less within normal levels, but we are talking about normal levels which are terrible,” said Smeraldi. “These are normal levels which lead to irreversible damage to the environment every year.”
Experts say damage from the fires ranges from the destruction of local flora and fauna to long-term impact on human health and loss of revenues from tourism.
Fires set in grazing pastures frequently burn out of control, spreading to forests where they creep through ground-level foliage, destroying young trees and reducing the soil’s protection against erosion once rains return.
Batmanian said hotels in the Pantanal, the world’s largest intact wetland, which covers a large swath of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, also reported a sharp drop in eco-tourism because of the fires.