Rondonia, Brazil – Amid an international outcry over thousands of wildfires raging in the Amazon rainforest, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, during a meeting of state governors, criticised indigenous reserves and suggested he would soon draft measures addressing land demarcations.
Without offering evidence, the far-right president said the Brazilian economy is dependent on commercially exploring natural and indigenous reserves and without such exploration the country could go “bankrupt”.
In the meeting, broadcast live, Bolsonaro said he will soon draft a package of measures for the Amazon region. Although he did not discuss details, he said those measures would address land demarcation and indigenous and quilombola (Afro-Brazilian) territory.
“Do you know how many quilombola territories are waiting to be approved?: 936. Plus 54 indigenous territories already being processed and other 314 requests filed for indigenous lands that want to be recognised in the Amazonian region alone,” the far-right president said during the live broadcast of the meeting.
“We can’t allow it: such a rich country and we can’t do anything with it. If we approve all of those reserves, the agribusiness industry is destroyed and if that happens, our economy is over,” he said.
The controversial comments come as Brazilian states fight thousands of fires across their territories. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, this year has seen an 80 percent increase in the number of fires burning across the country when compared with the same time period in 2018. More than half the fires are in the Amazon region.
Although fires are a regular and natural occurrence this time of year, environmentalists and others attribute the surge to the rise of illegal deforestation and weakened protections under Bolsonaro.
Marcio Astrini, from Greenpeace and environmental watchdog Observatorio do Clima, said Bolsonaro’s obsession in exploring the Amazon and increasing Brazil’s exports could backfire.
“Brazil sells its products to Europe and they expect a certain guarantee of the sourcing of those products – the so-called ‘free trade’. So the most deforestation there is, the more difficult will be to prove that and the Brazilian economy might end up being damaged,” he told Al Jazeera.
Astrini noted that until now there has been “little monitoring” of Brazilian products and its sources, but that could change with the latest international attention over the Amazon fires.
Bolsonaro, who has previously blamed the fires on the weather, and said without evidence that non-governmental organisations were setting the fires, listened to several state governors who agreed more funding and resources were necessary to protect the Amazon. That includes more field inspectors, mapping and categorising of unused lands, regulation of sustainable development to prevent illegal exploration. Many said poverty is pushing producers to cut down more of the forest and illegally explore the Amazon and that sustainable development in unused lands could prevent help it.
“While our people are hungry we cannot protect anything,” said the Amazonas governor.
Bolsonaro accused previous administrations of losing control of the Amazon, and creating an “industry of land demarcation”.
“The policies adopted in the past, using the indigenous as leverage to deny process in these states, were irresponsible,” he said.
Those present in the all-men meeting also mentioned how indigenous people in their states “want to be part of society” and want “to explore their lands commercially”.
Indigenous leaders, however, have repeatedly decried the Bolsonaro administration’s attempt to open up indigenous land for exploration.
Joenia Wapichana, the only indigenous MP, said the president does not have the power to control the demarcation of indigenous lands.
“The demarcation of indigenous land is controlled by law and protected by our Constitution. It’s not a government policy, it is a constitutional right. So, as much as President Bolsonaro has an individualist, racist, anti-democratic and irresponsible opinion, he cannot make that happen because it depends on the law,” she told Al Jazeera.
Wapichana, who has been vocal in defending indigenous rights in the Brazilian congress, accused Bolsonaro of “attacking the most vulnerable” and adopting a “blind ideology”.
“Indigenous reserves are a strategy for the protection of biodiversity and the Amazon, so unless he adopts a positive attitude, I think he will have to respond for crimes against humanity,” she said.
So far, the international community has pledged more than $40m in aid to help fight the fires. Leaders of the G7, who were meeting in France this weekend, said they would give more than $20m. Additionally, Canada and the UK pledge $11m and $12m respectively.
But Bolsonaro said on Tuesday he would only consider accepting the G7 funds if Macron apologised for some remarks the Brazilian president deemed as “insults”.
“First of all, Macron has to withdraw his insults. He called me a liar. Before we talk or accept anything from France … he must withdraw these words then we can talk,” Bolsonaro said. “First he withdraws, then offers [aid], then I will answer.”
Macron has called the fires in the Amazon an “international crisis”, urging more international support in Brazil’s efforts to fight the blazes.
Responding to Bolsonaro’s accusation that France and other countries were disrespecting Brazil’s sovereignty, Macron said: “We respect your sovereignty. It’s your country. But we cannot allow you to destroy everything.”
Bolsonaro continued his criticism of Macron during Tuesday’s meeting, saying “We do know how to protect the environment, so this is more of a message to the outside. We have to be autonomous and do what needs to be done. We are concerned about the world, but we have to be concerned with our people, our nation.”