The afternoon of Monday, August 19, I was at home in my apartment in the city center of São Paulo. Glancing out the window, I noticed the sky was unusually dark. I figured it was about to rain, so I told my children we had to cancel our trip to the park. I thought no more of it, and the next day everything was back to normal. However, to my amazement, I started receiving messages from friends back in the United States asking me if I was “doing OK in the darkness from the smoke.”

I went online and discovered the previous day’s darkened sky was a major international news story, eliciting descriptors like “Mordor” or the “Apocalypse.” That’s a far cry from what I experienced.

“When the rest of the world starts sending out alarms about a local issue, it means there’s something bigger at play,” said Christopher Lingle, visiting professor of economics at the Mackenzie Center for Economic Freedom, São Paulo, in an interview. He also noticed the vast discrepancy between the darkened sky he witnessed personally and the international headlines. “I smelled a political rat,” he said.

The temporary darkness in São Paulo was caused by a rare combination of smoke from fires in the Amazon rainforest, clouds, and a cold front. About 60 percent of the Amazon is in Brazilian territory, with the rest spread across several other South American countries. “São Paulo was affected by fires in Bolivia and parts of Amazonia, but the coverage quickly dropped the focus on Bolivia and focused on President Bolsonaro instead,” Lingle said. Bolivia has a socialist government. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is right-wing. His election last year was met with a global media meltdown similar to the one that took place when Donald Trump was elected.

After the dark sky, media coverage soon shifted to figures showing the number of fires in the Brazilian Amazon had increased—and the blame was placed squarely on Bolsonaro’s shoulders.

According to the Brazilian space agency, there were 87,000 fires in the Brazilian Amazon in the first eight months of this year. That represents a 76 percent increase over the same period last year. “We haven’t seen numbers this high since 2010,” said Cassiano Ricardo Dalberto, professor of economics at the Federal University of Santa Catarina.

Some of the fires are the result of natural events like lightning strikes, but the majority are set by humans—many are set for purposes of illegal deforestation. However, some of the fires are the result of a legal farming technique. Brazilian farming has used controlled fires to clear land for 5,000 years, and it is a technique still practiced in many other developing countries. “It’s a traditional way of eliminating pests and creating [improved] soil conditions. A lot of this occurs as an annual pastoral technique,” Lingle said.

As word spread about the increase in the number of fires, celebrities and politicians took to social media. They expressed outrage over a supposed environmental disaster taking place in the Brazilian Amazon.

President Emmanuel Macron of France led the charge on August 22, when he tweeted “Our house is burning. Literally.” He included a photo of an Amazon fire that was subsequently revealed to be from 1989, not 2019.

“I think this is the biggest fake news story of the year. Macron made a major, false allegation against another country and used a photo from the last century,” said Antônio Cabrera, a Brazilian farmer and former minister of agriculture.

Cabrera doesn’t believe the current fires represent a crisis. “There is nothing out of control. We have this every year,” he said.

His assessment is perhaps overly optimistic. However, it is fair to say that the available data do not reveal much about historical or global trends. “All the data is highly selective,” Lingle said. “The interpretation is that this is the worst year on record but the records don’t go very far back and they aren’t comprehensive.”

Lingle continued, “It also doesn’t compare Brazil with other parts of the world. For example, in the Congo there are also rainforest fires, which are perhaps of greater proportion.”

Cabrera—along with many other Brazilians—believes Macron has a hidden agenda. The European Union recently completed a massive free-trade agreement with Mercosur, a South American trading bloc that includes Brazil. The agreement took 20 years to negotiate, but now Macron is threatening to veto it over the fires.

If implemented, the Mercosur agreement means French farmers would face stiff competition from their Brazilian counterparts. Thus, Cabrera believes Macron would be happy to derail it. “This is a trade war. It’s a commercial agenda, but they are presenting it as an environmental agenda,” he said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom agrees. Arriving at the G7 Summit in France in August, he was asked about the fires and said, “People will take any excuse at all to interfere with free trade and to frustrate trade deals, and I don’t want to see that.”

Lingle believes there is more to the global media hysteria than just a political ploy by Macron. “The interpretation of the fires is colored by climate-change alarmism and visceral dislike of President Bolsonaro,” Lingle said. “The story gives the convenience of a right-wing punching bag.”

Much of the coverage has attributed the recent increase in fires to Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental, pro-development rhetoric. According to this narrative, farmers were emboldened to start more fires for illegal deforestation since they believe Bolsonaro will let them get away with it. Dalberto thinks there is some truth to that. “While it is very hard to say what is causing the increase in the fires, there has been an increase since the change in presidency. So it is reasonable to assume they are related,” he said. “We need to put more resources into enforcing environmental regulation.”

Cabrera disagrees that Bolsonaro’s administration has created an atmosphere of lawlessness in the Amazon. “No other country in the world has environmental protection laws as tough as Brazil’s. And there’s very strong prosecution of environmental laws,” he said.

“Everybody knows that if you break the law the Ministério Público [Brazil’s Ministry of Justice] will prosecute you,” Cabrera said. “Prosecutors are constantly monitoring farms. When you sell your products to large international companies, they do inspections. They take satellite photos to check you are maintaining your mandatory land reserves.”

Bolsonaro’s initial response to the fires did little to improve his international image. “He didn’t take it seriously,” Dalberto said. Rather than addressing the crisis, Bolsonaro started a social media war with Macron. He accused the French president of engaging in colonialism and insulted the appearance of his wife, Brigitte. Bolsonaro declined an offer of $22 million in aid from the G7 to fight the fires unless Macron apologized. “First of all, Macron has to withdraw his insults. He called me a liar,” Bolsonaro told Brazilian media.

Eventually, Bolsonaro changed course and took stronger action, announcing he would send 43,000 troops to the Amazon. “Brazil has never used the army to combat the fires before,” Cabrera said. “This is a very strong measure.” He and other Brazilian farmers lobbied the government to respond forcefully. They are anxious to see the free-trade agreement ratified and worry Macron may yet succeed in derailing it. Only time will tell if Brazilian troops can successfully put out the fires. Regardless, their deployment is only a temporary fix. “We don’t have enough soldiers to take care of the whole Amazon,” Cabrera said.

The real problem lies much deeper. The Brazilian Amazon is 1.8 million square miles in size. It contains some national parks and reservations for indigenous peoples. But most of the Amazon is simply Brazilian sovereign territory, which effectively means it belongs to no one.

“We have vast areas of land where no one is in charge. That is where the worst fires are,” Cabrera said. “We are living a tragedy of the commons in the Amazon. When you have land that nobody owns, then everyone wants to get the best of the land right now without thinking about the future.”

Cabrera believes the government should undertake a massive project to privatize the Amazon. He would like to see the homesteading of the American West serve as a model.

Lingle agrees privatization is the best way forward. “The government should investigate what are the policies that invite misuse of the rainforest and replace them with ones that create a more accurate valuation of the land,” he said.

The government of Brazil has many different options to incentivize protection, Lingle said. The key consideration should be that anyone who uses the land must pay for its value. “There should be a competitive market for ownership by environmental groups, hunting groups, agricultural producers and private individuals,” he said. “In central America some of the government’s debt was bought by environmental groups in exchange for the government setting aside wilderness as public parks.”

Real or imagined crises in the Amazon have the potential to derail Bolsonaro’s policy goals. As a right-wing president, he is particularly vulnerable to criticism of his environmental stewardship. Hopefully, he will understand that and leverage the current crisis to make the major changes required. The Amazon rainforest needs to undergo some form of privatization. This would not only be in Bolsonaro’s best interest, but in Brazil’s as well.