SÃO PAULO – With a severe draught in many parts of the country, Brazil is now seeing a record number of wildfires, especially in the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland.

Brazil’s bishops have condemned the government’s lack of preparation in dealing with the fires, as well as President Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to downplay the problem.

The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) released a statement on Sept. 23 criticizing the federal government for its inaction and its attempt to cover up the problem.

The day before, Bolsonaro had declared to the United Nations General Assembly that there’s a “brutal disinformation campaign” in regard to the wildfires.

“The Amazon is humid and doesn’t allow fire propagation inside of it,” he said. Bolsonaro also blamed indigenous peoples and local peasants for the wildfires, claiming that they usually set fires to clear areas for farming.

The Brazilian bishops expressed incredulity at the president’s statement.

“Amid so much devastation (…) the common sense is also attacked both by the explicit and reiterated denialism by our government leaders and by the accusation that peoples and groups are responsible for some wildfires. Such a criminalization in front of the whole world camouflages in the smoke of fake news the effort of those peoples to survive and brings the chaos of disinformation,” the CNBB statement read.

The declaration also there have been recent budget cuts in the Brazilian environmental agencies and that the creation of the Amazon Council, under the control of the Brazilian military, didn’t solve the problem of wildfires, given they are worse in 2020 than in previous years.

The letter highlights that there’s a record amount of wildfires in the Cerrado, a tropical savanna, in the Pantanal – where the number of wildfires jumped from 6,052 in 2019 to 15,973 in 2020 –  and in the Amazon, “totaling according to the National Institute of Space Studies 123,325 wildfires in 2019 and 129,146 till September 20, 2020, what corresponds to an increase of 5,821, destroying a great part of those biomes biodiversity and threatening indigenous and traditional peoples.”

The bishops conclude their statement by calling on Brazilians to unite in the “protection of the Common Home” and affirming that “the effective overcoming of such a chaotic situation will only be possible with strong monitoring, investigation, and charging of the guilty, with the obligation of reforestation, with the integral recovery of devastated nature, and with the reorganization of the economic structures.”

One of the most impacted areas is the Bananal Island, in Tocantins State. The fluvial island is at a confluence of the Cerrado and Amazonian biomes and is the home of several different indigenous peoples, including one uncontacted group.

“There are more than 100 wildfires in the island now. Since June, with the dry season, the fires have been growing and even affected the spot where the isolated people live,” explained Eliane Martins, the local coordinator of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI).

According to Martins, the other peoples that live on the island – the Karajá, the Javaé, and the Avá-Canoeiro – have been suffering from the smoke that has engulfed their villages.

“There are natural pastures on the island, so ranchers send their cattle there. Locals suspect that most wildfires began with the herdsmen, when they want to renovate the pastures,” she said.

The nearby Xavante territory has been devastated by wildfires.

“The Maraiwatsédé indigenous land is hit by fires every year. Now, it had a significant portion impacted,” said Bishop Adriano Ciocca Vasino of the Prelature of São Félix do Araguaia.

“Now the rains have begun, but much had already been destroyed,” he said.

In the region of Cáceres, in Mato Grosso State, wildfires have hit the Cerrado and Pantanal zones, said Father Edson Cardoso, the diocese’s coordinator of communications.

“The rainy season is taking longer to begin. With the high temperatures, everything burns very fast. But some of the fires have a criminal origin,” Cardoso said.

Many communities that depend on water for farming and fishing have been suffering with the draught, and the local Church has been distributing food kits, Cardoso added.

“Only with heavy rains will this situation be solved,” he said.

Cardoso blames the federal government for the low number of firefighters working in the region.

“The government was able to foresee this situation with satellite monitoring. So, why wasn’t it prepared to deal with it? Help took too long to arrive, and it isn’t enough,” he said.

The smoke has contaminated the air in the nearby cities and has been affecting people with lung conditions, something that can be especially dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

In the Southern Pantanal area, in Mato Grosso do Sul State, wildfires have had a terrible ecological impact, said Bishop João Bergamasco of Corumbá.

“Parks and reservations have been burning all over the region, with gigantic losses of fauna and flora,” he told Crux.

The wildfires, which also reached Bolivia, are worse than in previous years, Bergamasco said.

“We can’t affirm that there are criminal fires, but it’s important that the authorities adequately inspect any suspected cases,” he said.

Bergamasco was one of the signatories of a letter released by the region’s bishops on Sept. 21, in which they expressed their concern with the increasing number of fires and urged the government to launch investigations on their causes.

“Clearing farms with fire is cheap, but sometimes you can’t control it and it ends up hitting your neighbors. We’ve been trying to raise consciousness on the need to preserve the forests and to avoid changes in the law that could further endanger them,” he said.

According to Archbishop João Justino Silva of Montes Claros, the president of the episcopal commission for culture and education, the ecological awareness advocated by Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ is still a distant reality for many in Brazil.

“I believe that what is prevailing is a utilitarian sense. People apparently don’t get touched by the destruction of the Amazon. Many are only concerned with their immediate needs,” he said.

Silva added it’s important for Catholics to understand that destroying the environment is also a sin.

“If a Christian begins a wildfire, he or she is excommunicated,” he said.