Flying over the river that meanders in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, a black and white bird tries to fly away from a region in northern Brazil that environmentalists call “the new frontier of deforestation”.
It is a swallow-tailed kite (Elanoides forficatus), a bird of prey whose tail resembles that of a swallow. The scene takes place in the northern Amazonian state of Rondônia, one of the most affected by forest fires.
In the last 12 years, the Amazon has never burned so much in one month of August. In 2022, the flames burned 18% more homes than in August 2021.
The most critical area is located at the crossroads of Amazonas, Acre and Rondônia, a region almost the size of Spain known as Amacro, an acronym for these three states whose authorities launched in 2021 a controversial Sustainable Development Zone project with the backing of President Jair Bolsonaro.
For Greenpeace, the real objective of the initiative is to “stimulate agricultural production” in a territory inhabited by 1.8 million people.
“This is the new frontier of deforestation,” stresses Romulo Batista, spokesman for that environmental association, with whom an AFP team flew over the area.
Amacro, says Batista, “concentrated 40% of the fires identified since the beginning of the year in the Brazilian Amazon”.
In some places, the smoke is so dense that the pilot’s visibility is greatly reduced. The smell of burning is almost unbearable.
In the areas already destroyed, the landscape is one of desolation: where once there was a thick layer of green vegetation, there are now huge areas of black or dark gray soil.
And in the areas that are still burning, the flames act as beacons amid the clouds of smoke generated by a multitude of igneous foci separated by just a few meters.
At night, seen from above, these hotspots look like small volcanoes erupting. For the inhabitants of Porto Velho, capital of the state of Rondônia, this month of August has been particularly difficult.
“I have the impression that there was three times more smoke than last year. It is harmful, especially for children who have respiratory problems,” Francisco Alan Ferreira da Silva, a 33-year-old driver, told AFP.
“It’s horrible, in the morning there is a huge fog, the sun is all red and it’s very hot. And when you open the window, you can see ash particles coming into the room,” explains Joyce Milena, a 24-year-old administrative assistant.
Deforestation and forest fires have increased sharply under the current government. Since Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, average annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased 75% compared to the previous decade.
The far-right president, who in October will seek re-election, rejects criticism arguing that Brazil “preserves its forests much better than Europe”, alluding to the fires that ravaged France and Spain this boreal summer.