G7 nations pledge $40m aid as Amazon fires continue to rage

The Group of Seven nations on Monday pledged tens of millions of dollars to help fight raging wildfires in the Amazon and protect its rainforest, even as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro accused rich countries of treating the region like a “colony.”

The international pledges at a G7 summit in France included US$20m from the group, as well as a separate $12m from Britain and $11m from Canada. Ottawa has also offered to send firefighting planes to Brazil.

Brazil’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, said the aid was welcome and that Brazil should decide how the resources are used.

New data released on Monday showed that hundreds of new fires have flared up in the Amazon in Brazil,

Some 1,113 new fires were ignited across Saturday and Sunday, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

Other groups have also expressed support for a region whose rainforests are a major absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Earth Alliance, a new environmental foundation backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, is pledging $5m in aid, saying the Amazon is one of the “best defences” against climate change.

The funds are widely seen as critical support, but a relatively small amount for dealing with an environmental crisis of such scale threatening what French President Emmanuel Macron called “the lungs of the planet.”

More than $1bn, for example, has been paid into a fund to help the Amazon in the past 10 years. And major donors Germany and Norway recently cut donations to Brazilian forestry projects, saying Bolsonaro’s administration was not committed to curbing deforestation.

It was unclear how exactly the new money would be administered by the Brazilian government.

Bureaucracy can slow and reduce the amount that reaches programmes in the field.

About 60 percent of the Amazon region is in Brazil; the vast forest also spans parts of Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru and Suriname.

More political will

More global funding and political will in Brazil will be needed once the fires are extinguished, said John Robinson, chief conservation officer at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Brazil needs “legislation and regulations that set clear limits preventing landowners – especially large ones – from burning the forest and converting it to agriculture and rangeland, backed by incentives and investment in alternatives,” Robinson said.

The international pledges came despite tensions between European countries and the Brazilian president, who suggested the West was angling to exploit Brazil’s natural resources.

“Look, does anyone help anyone… without something in return? What have they wanted there for so long?” Bolsonaro said.

Bolsonaro has insulted adversaries and allies, disparaged women, black and gay people, and praised his country’s 1964-1985 dictatorship. But nothing has rallied more anger at home and criticism from abroad than his response to the fires in parts of the Amazon region.

The Brazilian leader says he is committed to protecting the Amazon and prosecuting anyone involved in illegal fires, many of which appear to be to have been set in already deforested areas to clear land for farming.

G7 Biarritz

Macron acknowledged that Europe shares some blame for the agricultural pressure on the Amazon Ludovic Marin/AP

But Bolsonaro initially questioned whether activist groups might have started the fires in an effort to damage the credibility of his government, which has called for looser environmental regulations in the world’s largest rainforest to spur development.

‘We’re not a colony’

“We believe that there are many mining companies and lumber companies and farmers who feel that the president has their backs,” said Raoni Metuktire, a Brazilian indigenous chief and environmentalist who travelled to the G7 summit in Biarritz.

In response, European leaders threatened to block a major trade deal with Brazil that would benefit the very agricultural interests accused of driving deforestation.

The impact of the fires and smoke has disrupted life for many in the Amazon region.

The airport in Porto Velho, the capital of Rondonia state, was closed for more than an hour Monday morning because of poor visibility.

On Sunday, a football match of a lower-tier national league was briefly suspended because of smoke in Rio Branco, capital of Acre state, as fires burned in a field outside the stadium.

Macron said the Amazon, while mostly Brazilian, is a world issue and that his message to Bolsonaro is: “We cannot allow you to destroy everything.”

Brazil’s sovereignty must be respected, Macron said, but the world can help Brazil reforest and build its economy “while respecting the natural balance.”

Speaking on French TV after hosting the G7 summit, Macron acknowledged that Europe, by importing soya from Brazil, shares some blame for the agricultural pressure on the rainforest.

Bolsonaro has accused Macron of treating the region “as if we were a colony.”

Bolsonaro has announced he would send 44,000 soldiers to help battle the blazes, and military planes began dumping water on fires in the Amazon state of Rondonia.

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Critics say a large number of fires this year has been stoked by Bolsonaro’s encouragement of farmers, loggers and ranchers to speed efforts to strip away forest Carl de Souza/AFP

Critics say a large number of fires this year has been stoked by Bolsonaro’s encouragement of farmers, loggers and ranchers to speed efforts to strip away forest.

Fires are common during Brazil’s dry season, but the numbers have surged this year. The country’s National Space Research Institute, which monitors deforestation, has recorded more than 77,000 wildfires in Brazil this year, a record since the institute began keeping track in 2013.

That is an 85 percent rise over last year, and about half of the fires have been in the Amazon region – with more than half of those coming just in the past month.

But Brazil’s Defence Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva claimed after meeting with Bolsonaro that the fires in the Amazon are “under control.”

“It has been exaggerated a little that the situation was out of control – it wasn’t,” he said. “The situation isn’t simple but it is under control.”

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