The Amazon is on fire and humans are most likely to blame. And the problem is getting worse.

Environmentalists are accusing cattle ranchers and loggers of deliberately starting fires in the Amazon to clear the land.

"The vast majority of these fires are human-lit," Amazon Watch program director Christian Poirier said.

The humid rainforest didn't easily catch fire like bushland in Australia, he added.


The number of fires in Brazil is 80 per cent higher than last year and more than half are in the Amazon region, reports.

That's a catastrophe for the local environment, biodiversity and the global climate.

Jair Bolsonaro claims NGOs started the Amazon fires. Photo / Getty Images
Jair Bolsonaro claims NGOs started the Amazon fires. Photo / Getty Images

Nearly 73,000 fires were recorded between January and August compared with 39,759 in the first eight months of 2018, the National Institute for Space Research said.

As fires continue to burn, the World Meteorological Organisation's atmosphere monitoring service released a map showing smoke from the fires had reached the Atlantic coast.

Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist, tweeted the map and described it as a "climate emergency".

The rainforest produces about 20 per cent of the world's oxygen supply and is often called the "lungs of the planet".

The World Wildlife Fund says if the forest is badly damaged it could start emitting carbon dioxide.

That could lead to rampant global warming.


President heckled

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro suggested the sharp increase in wildfires in the Amazon was an effort by non-governmental organisations to make him look bad.

"Maybe — I am not affirming it — these (NGO people) are carrying out some criminal actions to draw attention against me, against the government of Brazil," Bolsonaro told reporters.

When asked if he had evidence of the conspiracy, the President did not provide any.

"There is a war going on in the world against Brazil, an information war," Bolsonaro said.

Tensions are boiling over in Brazil as residents of Sao Paulo, the country's largest city, shared photos on social media of apocalyptic scenes, with black smoke from the fires blocking out the sun.

Brazil's Environment Minister Ricardo Salles was heckled when he took the stage at a five-day UN workshop on climate change on Wednesday in the northern state of Bahia — an event he had tried to cancel earlier this year.

Some in the audience shouted while waving signs reading "Stop Ecocide" or "The Amazon is burning".

Salles spoke briefly, saying climate change needs to be addressed. "People are asking for more and more actions. … There is an acknowledgment that we are in a situation of crisis and emergency," said Manuel Pulgar Vidal, former environment minister of Peru, who attended the event.

Vidal, who now works for the non-profit WWF, said the criticism directed at Salles could eventually prod the administration into taking action on climate change. "There is no room for negationism," Vidal said.

Earlier this month, the head of Brazil's National Institute for Space Research was forced to leave his position after standing up to the President's accusations that deforestation data had been manipulated to tarnish the image of his administration.

The states that have been most affected by fires this year are Mato Grosso, Para and Amazonas — all in the Amazon region — accounting for 41.7 per cent of all fires.

"It is very difficult to have natural fires in the Amazon; it happens but the majority come from the hand of humans," said Paulo Moutinho, co-founder of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute.

Moutinho, who has been working in the Amazon forests for nearly 30 years, said fires were mostly used to clean up vast areas of land for farming or logging. The fires can easily get out of control, especially now during the Amazon's dry season, and spread to densely forested protected areas.

President Bolsonaro, who once threatened to leave the Paris climate accord, has repeatedly attacked environmental non-profits, seen as obstacles in his quest to develop the country's full economic potential, including in protected areas.

Bolsonaro and Salles are both close to the powerful rural caucus in Congress and have been urging more development and economic opportunities in the Amazon region, which they consider overly protected by current legislation.

Some NGOs, environmentalists and academics have been blaming the administration's pro-development policies for a sharp increase in Amazon deforestation shown in the latest data from the space research institute.

The Government is also facing international pressure to protect the vast rainforest from illegal logging or mining activities.