(CNN) – In Brazil’s Amazon rainforest fires are raging at a record rate and scientists warn that it could strike a devastating blow to the fight against climate change.
The fires are burning at the highest rate since the country’s space research center, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), began tracking them in 2013, the center said Tuesday.
In total there have been 72,843 fires in Brazil this year, with more than half of them occurring in the Amazon region, INPE said. That is more than an 80% increase compared with the same period last year.
The Amazon produces 20% of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere.
It is considered vital in slowing the warming of the Earth, and it is home to uncountable species of fauna and flora. Roughly half the size of the United States, it is the largest rainforest on the planet.
Dramatic images and videos have been circulating on social media showing giant plumes of smoke rising from the greenery and lines of fire leaving blackened waste in their wake.
The smoke has reached all the way to Sao Paulo, more than 1,700 miles away. Images from the city show the sky pitch-black in the middle of the afternoon, the sun blanketed by smoke and ash.
The European Union’s satellite program, Copernicus, released a map showing smoke from the fires spreading all along Brazil to the east Atlantic coast. The smoke has covered nearly half of the country and is even spilling over into the neighboring countries of Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay.
The Amazon River stretches across several of these South American countries, but the majority — more than two-thirds — of the rainforest lies in Brazil.
According to INPE, more than 1½ soccer fields of Amazon rainforest are being destroyed every minute of every day.
Environmental groups have long been campaigning to save the Amazon, blaming Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, for the endangerment of the vital rainforest. They accuse Bolsonaro of relaxing environmental controls in the country and encouraging deforestation.
Bolsonaro’s environmental policies have been controversial from the start. A former army captain, he made campaign promises to restore the economy by exploring the Amazon’s economic potential.
Just weeks ago, the director of INPE was fired after a spat with the president; the director had defended satellite data that showed deforestation was 88% higher in June than a year earlier, and Bolsonaro called the findings “lies.”
Bolsonaro also criticized the agency’s deforestation warnings as harmful for trade negotiations, according to the Agencia Brasil news agency.
Bolsonaro’s pro-business stance may have emboldened loggers, farmers and miners to seize control of a growing area of Amazon land, Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the environmental nonprofit organization Observatorio do Clima (Climate Observatory), told CNN en Español last month.
Budget cuts and federal interference are making it even easier for people to exploit the rainforest. Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency has seen its budget cut by $23 million, and official data sent to CNN by Observatorio do Clima shows the enforcement agency’s operations have gone down since Bolsonaro was sworn in.
On Wednesday, Bolsonaro said that the recent wave of fires in the Amazon may have been caused by nongovernmental organizations in order to draw international criticism to his government.
“Crime exists, and we need to make sure that this type of crime does not increase. We took money away from the NGOs,” he said.
“They are now feeling the pinch from the lack of funding. So, maybe the NGO types are conducting these criminal acts in order to generate negative attention against me and against the Brazilian government. This is the war we are facing.”
In July, Greenpeace called Bolsonaro and his government a “threat to the climate equilibrium” and warned that in the long run, his policies would bear a “heavy cost” for the Brazilian economy.
Environmental activists and organizations like the World Wildlife Fund warn that if the Amazon reaches a point of no return, the rainforest could become a dry savanna, no longer habitable for much of its wildlife.