Amazon Fires Deepen a Split Between Brazilian Evangelicals and Other Christians

Fire consumes an area in Altamira, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. Brazil insisted on Tuesday that it would set conditions for accepting any aid from the world’s richest nations to help fight Amazon fires, saying France couldn’t protect the Notre Dame Cathedral from fire devastation and should focus on its own problems. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

The apparently intentional escalation of fires in the Amazon rainforest has contributed to a growing political split among religious groups in Brazil, as the country’s Catholic bishops and Protestant denominations have spoken out against President Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policies while his evangelical Christian allies have remained silent, or even debunked the criticism.

Though the fires have only come to the world’s attention in recent days, the controversy began in Brazil in July, when Bolsonaro contested the veracity of data showing the increasing deforestation rate of the Amazon. Brazil’s National Space Research Institute reported that the devastation of the Amazon grew 278% in July 2019 compared to July 2018.

Bolsonaro’s comments led to the dismissal of Ricardo Galvão, the physicist who directed the institute.

On August 19, the smoke produced by wildfires in the Amazon, and other biomes in Brazil and Bolivia, darkened the sky in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, located 2,000 miles southeast of the rainforest. Scientists confirmed that the black rain that fell that day contained retene, a product of burning biomass. INPE showed that the 40,341 wildfires recorded so far this year represent an increase of 82% compared to the January to August of 2018 timeframe.

Wildfires are common during the dry season in the Amazon, but there is evidence of criminal actions perpetrated by big landowners in the region, who use the fires to clear forest to expand their farmlands. The Brazilian magazine Globo Rural published a story recently about a group of farmers and miners in the Amazonian state of Pará that used a messaging app to call for a “day of fire.”

According to Globo Rural, men hired by the group set fire to a large reservation on August 10, provoking the biggest wildfire in the history of the state. Their aim was to protest against the current environmental laws and to show their support for Bolsonaro’s plans to loosen restrictions on companies in the region. Bolsonaro in turn accused non-governmental organizations of starting the wildfires, without citing any evidence, saying they wanted to foment opposition against him and the Brazilian government.

On August 22, the Ecumenical Forum ACT Brazil, a council of Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church, released a statement saying the Bolsonaro administration’s policies “led to a surge in devastation of the environment” in the country.

The next day, the National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil released a statement that did not mention the president by name but said, “This is not the time for insanities and absurdities in judgement or in speech.” The bishops demanded urgent action to save a “region that is crucial for the ecological balance of the planet.”

This week, the Catholic bishops of the Amazon are gathering in the state of Pará to attend the last preparatory meeting for the upcoming Synod for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will be held in the Vatican in October.

The defense of the Amazon and its peoples is a central part of the debates regarding the synod. Earlier this year, Catholic activism on rainforest issues caused members of the Bolsonaro administration to accuse the Church of acting as a “leftist opposition” group.

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Source: Religion News Service