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BELÉM, Brazil ― Alda Figueiredo had never seen anything like it.
From the open-air kiosk where Figueiredo has been selling fried fish with açaí for two decades, she watched Friday as black smoke billowed over Guajará Bay.
On Saturday, she pointed to what looked like an island on the opposite side of the scenic bay that hugs this sprawling city, where, over 400 years ago, the Portuguese founded the first European colony in the Amazon.
“See there?” asked Figueiredo, 40. “Darker smoke started to come out, like an erupting volcano.”
But as fires raged across Pará, the second-largest state in Brazil’s densely forested north, a haze of distrust set in, fueled by President Jair Bolsonaro’s bombastic effort to deflect attention from his far-right administration’s role in a crisis gripping the world.
Apocalyptic images of São Paulo, the Western Hemisphere’s largest metropolis, enshrouded in black smoke last week prompted global outcry over deforestation amid mounting fears over the rapidly worsening climate crisis. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research released new satellite data showing an 82% increase in fires over the same period a year earlier. Pará experienced the greatest uptick in fires, with roughly 1,630 in the first seven months of 2019.
Unlike the blazes in the Arctic, where lightning or other natural sparks ignited tundra turned tinder in unnaturally hot summer heat, humans lit the flames now burning in Brazil.
Bolsonaro, who won the presidency last year as scandal engulfed his left-wing rivals, campaigned on a promise to open the Amazon to industry. The president ― nicknaming himself “Capitão Motosserra,” or Captain Chainsaw ― spurred an already-growing number of ranchers, loggers and miners to seek their fortunes clearing pristine rainforest as he slashed the budget at Brazil’s leading environmental enforcement agency and shifted control over indigenous lands to the agribusiness-dominated Ministry of Agriculture.
As international leaders condemned Bolsonaro for jeopardizing the world’s largest forest, known as the lungs of the planet for its vital role in filtering climate-changing carbon dioxide, the president first shifted blame to environmental nonprofits, which he accused of lighting fires to undermine his agenda. Bolsonaro then rebuked European leaders for infringing on Brazil’s sovereignty by pressuring his administration to stop deforestation.
After deploying the Army to combat the blazes, Bolsonaro finally seized on the spread of outdated photos and videos of fires in the Amazon to sow confusion over the severity of the crisis.
On the unpaved stretch of dirt highway that cuts through the jungle from Belém to Altamira in Pará’s rural interior, smoke wafted from charred clearings and a burnt smell hung in the air.
“Yesterday we could see a dark and very strong smoke from here,” said Eduardo da Silva Loureiro, 28, a worker at a gas station in Uruará, a district roughly 112 miles from Altamira’s center. “This type of burning is very common in the region. The loggers are cleaning up the land.”
But when a HuffPost Brasil reporter began taking photos, four loggers suddenly arrived and surrounded her, angrily demanding to know what she was doing.
“There is no fire in this region,” they claimed.
After introducing herself as a journalist, the loggers, who did not give their names, complained that “reporters only do bad and wrong things on TV.” They told her to leave the area. “It is better for you to go.”
Around dusk, orange flames and gray smoke enveloped the remaining trees in a largely cleared field on the side of a major road close to the rural district of Medicilândia. When the reporter again began taking photos, the owner of a house nearby came out and told her to put her camera away.
Last month, loggers in Altamira burned cars owned by environmental enforcement agents when they found out the inspectors planned to visit the area, according to an official who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. The loggers also destroyed a wooden bridge.
On Aug. 10, a 70-person WhatsApp group of farmers, loggers and land grabbers planned to set fire to a stretch of forest along the highway that connects Pará and Mato Grosso, according to TV Globo. (WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service, is Brazil’s most widely used social networking site and has become a fertile breeding ground for right-wing organizing, as HuffPost has reported.)
Still, some residents argued the fires captivating international media are “a lie.”
“There is no fire as television is showing day after day. Here it rains every week,” Rosana Magalhães, owner of a restaurant in Alvorada said as she cooked rice, beans and cheap meat for local diners.
An airplane pilot who declined to give his name accused space agency scientists in the United States of releasing doctored satellite photos of the Amazon.
“There is so much sensationalism. The images of Nasa — that show fire — are manipulated,” the pilot said. “I have been flying since Monday and have not seen anything.”
The responses highlight a key reason English-language media dubbed Bolsonaro the “Trump of the tropics” during his campaign last year. From the start, Bolsonaro, like U.S. President Donald Trump, stacked his cabinet with science deniers who call climate change a Marxist hoax and made his open disdain for minority communities who depend on the Amazon a hallmark of his political messaging. Now, both leaders distract from fierce criticism and low polling at home by recasting criticism from media or other countries as unfair mudslinging from ideological opponents.
The success of such political theater, however, depends on the willingness of its audience.
Back in Belém, Carmelita dos Passos, 70, recounted watching smoke darken the daytime sky. She blamed Bolsonaro both for encouraging the destruction of the rainforest and for failing to act faster to contain the flames.
“After so many days of fire, Bolsonaro announced only on Friday he would do something,” she said. “This delay is such a shame.”
Débora Álvares reported from Pará state in Brazil. Alexander Kaufman reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.