European leaders on Friday threatened to tear up a trade deal with South America, reflecting growing international anger at Brazil as a record number of fires in the Amazon rainforest intensified an unfolding environmental crisis.
Aerial picture showing smoke from a two-kilometre-long stretch of fire billowing from the Amazon rainforest about 65 km from Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia, in northern Brazil [Carl de Souza/AFP]
Amid a global chorus of concern and condemnation, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro pledged in an address to the nation to mobilise the army to help combat the blazes, while his administration launched a diplomatic charm offensive to try to mend bridges overseas.
Forest 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 swathes of a vital bulwark against global climate change.
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 a regional South American bloc following Brazil’s response.
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.”
But the former military officer attributed the scale of the fires to dryer-than-average weather and insisted on the need for economic development of the Amazon to improve the lives of its 20 million inhabitants.
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 said in his televised speech.
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.
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.
G7 set discuss fires
The wildfires now look set to be discussed 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.
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.
France and Ireland said on Friday they would now oppose the EU-Mercosur farming deal struck in June between the European Union and the Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
The French president’s office accused Bolsonaro of lying when he downplayed concerns over climate change at the G20 summit in June.
“There is no way that Ireland will vote for the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement if Brazil does not honor its environmental commitments,” Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo 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.
Stung by the international outcry, Brazil distributed a 12-page circular, exclusively 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.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly said he believes 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 may 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 an Amazon Fund designed to curb deforestation in the region in protest at 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.