Half a millennium on, Brazil is still burning

Once upon a time, Brazil was a Portuguese colony. In the early days of its European “discovery,” the land went by several names, including Ilha de Vera Cruz and Pindorama, the preferred choice of native indigenous people. The name “Brazil” came in 1505, being an homage to the land’s first major export: the Brazilwood tree, or Pau Brasil.

The word ‘brasil’ comes from ‘brasa’ (ember, in English) suggesting the wood’s resemblance with the intense red color of burning coal. Indeed, fire has been a part of Brazil’s story from the very beginning. Half a millennium after the Portuguese arrived on the country’s southeastern coast, Brazil is still burning — and its native vegetation is being destroyed.

So far in 2020, fires in Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands have destroyed at least 26 percent of the biome, threatening the region’s rich biodiversity. The increased air temperatures have led to a heatwave that has spread countrywide. This week Brazilian Institute of Meteorology (Inmet) issued a warning of “severe danger” due to high temperatures in Brazil’s Center-West region. The report even indicated a potential risk of death from hyperthermia.

The city of São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, two of Brazil’s biggest state capitals, are also facing historical temperature records. But this isn’t a one-off: the average high temperature in Brazilian state capitals jumped from 29.5ºC to 31.4ºC between 1962 and 2019. In recent weeks, thermometers shot above 40ºC in several parts of Brazil. 

And the situation could get even worse, as the government has shown nothing to suggest it will effectively combat the burning of the country’s native vegetation. In fact, during last month’s UN General Assembly, President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed Brazil’s environmental chaos, saying that his government is the victim of an international misinformation campaign. 

But if this didn’t change in half a millennium, why would it change now? 

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