Following a global chorus of concern and condemnation, Brazil‘s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to mobilise the army to help combat fires that have been ravaging large parts of the Amazon rainforest, while his administration launched a diplomatic charm offensive to try to mend bridges overseas.
The fires in the Brazilian Amazon, which accounts for more than half of the world’s largest rainforest, have surged in number by 83 percent this year, according to government data, destroying vast swaths of a vital bulwark against global climate change.
“Forest fires happen every year in Brazil, but it was the sheer scale this year that shocked the world. The so-called world’s lungs are on fire,” Al Jazeera’s Daniel Schweimler said from Rondonia, one of the states worst affected by the fires.
“Criticism first from within Brazil, and then internationally, forced Bolsonaro to respond,” Schweimler said.
“He has been accused by many of creating the conditions he is now trying to control.”
That viewpoint is supported by environmental organisation Greenpeace, which accuses the Brazilian authorities of not doing enough.
“At the moment, if you burn the forest, you are backed up by a president and then you do exactly as you want to do because you know nothing will happen to you,” Olivier Salge, Greenpeace Amazon campaigner, told Al Jazeera.
“We have seen statistically that when there is law enforcement, fires and deforestation go down. When it isn’t there, they go up,” he said.
Plans for more agriculture and mining
In an attempt to fight the fires and ease the criticism aimed at him, Bolsonaro, who initially accused non-governmental organisations of setting the forest on fire without providing any evidence, said in a televised address he had authorised the use of troops to fight the fires and stop illegal deforestation in the Amazon.
But the former military officer attributed the scale of the fires to drier-than-average weather and insisted on the need for economic development of the Amazon to improve the lives of its 20 million inhabitants.
“Forest fires happen all over the world, so this is no reason to impose international sanctions. Brazil will continue to be as it is now a country that is friendly with everyone and is responsible with protection its forest,” Bolsonaro said in a televised speech on Friday.
Environmentalists have warned that his controversial plans for more agriculture and mining in the region will speed up deforestation.
“We have to give the population the opportunity to develop and my government is working for that, with zero tolerance for crime – and that is no different for the environment,” Bolsonaro added.
Polls show Brazilians overwhelmingly oppose his policy on the environment and as he spoke to the nation, residents in large cities across Brazil banged on pots and pans in a traditional Latin American form of protest.
That criticism was echoed by European leaders, who on Friday threatened to tear up a trade deal with South America, reflecting growing international anger at Brazil as the record number of fires in the Amazon rainforest intensified an unfolding environmental crisis.
French President Emmanuel Macron called for G7 leaders to discuss the environmental crisis in Brazil at a summit this weekend in the French coastal resort of Biarritz. France and Ireland threatened to oppose an EU trade deal struck in June with the regional Mercosur bloc of countries including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, following Brazil’s response.
Hours ahead of the G7 meeting, Macron said on Twitter “our house is on fire”, calling for members of the summit to act.
Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire. It is an international crisis. Members of the G7 Summit, let's discuss this emergency first order in two days! #ActForTheAmazon pic.twitter.com/dogOJj9big
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) August 22, 2019
Images of fires raging in the Amazon broadcast around the globe sparked protests outside Brazilian embassies from Mexico City and Lima to London and Paris.
In the Cypriot capital Nicosia, a sign tied to the railings of Brazil’s diplomatic mission read: “The Amazon belongs to Earth, not to the Brazilian president.”
US President Donald Trump – whose sceptical views on climate change Bolsonaro shares – called the Brazilian president to offer help, if needed, in dealing with the wildfires.
“I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!” Trump tweeted on Friday.
Just spoke with President @JairBolsonaro of Brazil. Our future Trade prospects are very exciting and our relationship is strong, perhaps stronger than ever before. I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon Rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019
G7 set to discuss fires
The wildfires will be one of the topics at the summit of G7 leaders in France this weekend, where Macron has called for leaders to sign a charter to protect biodiversity. The French leader said an “ecocide” was taking place in the Amazon that required an international response.
Irish leader Leo Varadkar, the first who said the EU trade deal with Brazil should be cancelled over the fires, called Bolsonaro’s attempts to blame the fires on environmental groups “Orwellian”.
“There is no way that Ireland will vote for the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement if Brazil does not honour its environmental commitments,” Varadkar said in a statement.
The EU-Mercosur deal took 20 years to negotiate, but will not be officially ratified for at least another two years.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that the fires were “not only heartbreaking, they are an international crisis,” while a spokeswoman said Johnson would use the summit to call for a renewed focus on protecting nature.
The French president’s office also accused Bolsonaro of lying when he downplayed concerns over climate change at the G20 summit in June.
Brazilian business leaders also warned the backlash over Brazil’s environmental record could sink its efforts to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based club of 36 developed nations whose imprimatur is required by many institutional investors.
Stung by the international outcry, Brazil distributed a 12-page circular, seen by Reuters, to foreign embassies, outlining data and statistics defending the government’s reputation on the environment.
Having first dismissed the fires as natural, then blaming non-governmental organisations without evidence for lighting them, Bolsonaro appeared to adopt a more serious approach on Friday following the international outcry, summoning top cabinet members for an afternoon meeting to tailor a response.
Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina Dias insisted that Brazil was “taking care” of the Amazon, and that international concerns over the fires needed to cool down.
“The news is worrying, but I think we have to lower the temperature. The Amazon is important, Brazil knows that, and Brazil is taking care of the Amazon,” she told reporters.
Who is to blame?
The Brazilian space agency INPE has registered 72,843 fires this year, the highest number since records began in 2013. More than 9,500 have been spotted by satellites over the past week.
Although fires are a regular and natural occurrence during the dry season at this time of year, environmentalists blamed the jump on farmers clearing land for pasture.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly said he believed Brazil should open up the Amazon to business interests, allowing mining, agricultural and logging companies to exploit its natural resources.
On Thursday, Bolsonaro admitted for the first time that farmers could be behind some of the fires but he responded angrily to what he saw as foreign interference.
Some foreign donors – including the biggest, Norway – have slashed their funding to the Amazon Fund, designed to curb deforestation in the region, in protest to changes introduced by Brazil that blocked its operations.
“These countries that send money here, they don’t send it out of charity … They send it with the aim of interfering with our sovereignty,” Bolsonaro said.
Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at Britain’s Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, urged that import sanctions be imposed on Brazil because of the fires.
“Immediate action is necessary to extinguish the current fires and prevent future ones,” the Brazilian scientist said.