Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has accused, without providing evidence, Hollywood actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio of financing nonprofit groups that he claimed are partly responsible for fires in the Amazon rainforest this year.
The far-right leader appeared to be commenting on social media postings claiming that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) environmental organisation had paid for images taken by volunteer firefighters that it then used to solicit donations, including a $500,000 contribution from DiCaprio.
The WWF has denied receiving a donation from DiCaprio or obtaining photos from the firefighters.
“This Leonardo DiCaprio is a cool guy, right? Giving money to torch the Amazon,” Bolsonaro said on Friday during brief remarks in front of the presidential residence.
DiCaprio’s environmental organisation Earth Alliance has pledged $5m to help protect the Amazon after a surge in fires destroyed large parts of the rainforest in July and August.
But the actor said in a statement sent to The Associated Press news agency on Friday his group had not funded either of the two nonprofits named by investigators so far.
“While worthy of support, we did not fund the organisations targeted,” the statement read. “The future of these irreplaceable ecosystems is at stake and I am proud to stand with the groups protecting them.”
The unsubstantiated accusations against DiCaprio and the criticism of environmental activists follows a police raid at the headquarters of two nonprofit groups in the Amazonian state of Para earlier this week.
Local police also arrested four volunteer firefighters and said they were investigating them for allegedly igniting fires to obtain funding from sympathetic donors.
The volunteer firefighters denied any wrongdoing and a judge ordered their release.
Politicians and other NGOs fiercely criticised the arrests, saying they were part of a concerted attempt by Bolsonaro’s government to harass environmental groups.
Federal prosecutors say their investigations point to land grabbers as primary suspects for fires in the area, not nonprofits or firefighters.
Cattle ranchers, farmers and illegal loggers have long used fire to clear land in the Amazon.
Bolsonaro, whose term started at the beginning of 2019 after he rose to power on a far-right populist platform, has repeatedly lashed out at various factions in casting blame for the forest fires.
In a Facebook live post on August 21, he claimed that “everything indicates” that NGOs were going to the Amazon to “set fire” to the forest. When asked then if he had evidence to back up his claims, Bolsonaro said he had “no written plan”, adding “that’s not how it’s done”.
One day later, he admitted farmers could be illegally setting the rainforest ablaze, but roughly a month later he attacked the “lying media” for saying that the rainforest was being devastated by the fires.
The Amazon rainforest is considered a bulwark against global climate change.