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Friday 20 September 2019

Bolsonaro defiant as global fears escalate over Amazon wildfires

The Brazilian government has accused European countries of exaggerating the danger from the fires in order to destabilise the country.

A satellite image shows the fires in Brazil (Nasa/AP)
A satellite image shows the fires in Brazil (Nasa/AP)

By Marcelo Silva de Sousa, AP

As global concerns rise over raging fires in the Amazon, Brazil’s government has complained that it is being targeted in smear campaign by critics who contend President Jair Bolsonaro is not doing enough to curb widespread deforestation.

The threat to what some call “the lungs of the planet” has ignited a bitter dispute about who is to blame during the tenure of a leader who has described Brazil’s rainforest protections as an obstacle to economic development.

Mr Bolsonaro traded Twitter jabs on Thursday with the French president over the fires.

Emmanuel Macron had called the wildfires an international crisis and said the leaders of the G7 group of nations should hold urgent discussions about them during their summit in France this weekend.

Mr Macron tweeted: “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire.”

The European Union and Germany backed Mr Macron’s call.

European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said: “The commission is deeply worried. The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and contains one 10th of the world’s species.”

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters that Chancellor Angela Merkel views the fires as “shocking and threatening”.

Mr Bolsonaro earlier fired back with his own tweet, writing: “I regret that Macron seeks to make personal political gains in an internal matter for Brazil and other Amazonian countries. The sensationalist tone he used does nothing to solve the problem.”

Onyx Lorenzoni, the Brazilian president’s chief of staff, had earlier accused European countries of exaggerating environmental problems in Brazil in order to disrupt its commercial interests.

“There is deforestation in Brazil, yes, but not at the rate and level that they say,” said Mr Lorenzoni, according to the website globo.com.

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Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro (AP)

His allegation came after Germany and Norway, citing Brazil’s apparent lack of commitment to fighting deforestation, decided to withhold more than 60 million dollars (£49 million) in funds earmarked for sustainability projects in Brazilian forests.

The debate came as Brazilian federal experts reported a record number of wildfires across the country this year, up 84% over the same period in 2018.

Satellite images show smoke from the Amazon reaching across the Latin American continent to the Atlantic coast and Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted: “In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity. The Amazon must be protected.”

Federal prosecutors in Brazil’s Amazon region launched investigations over increasing deforestation, according to local media.

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Activists form a circle during a protest against the Brazilian government’s environmental policies in Salvador (AP)

Prosecutors said they plan to probe possible negligence by the national government in the enforcement of environmental codes.

Bolivia is also struggling to contain big fires, many believed to have been set by farmers clearing land for cultivation.

Mr Bolsonaro said there was a “very strong” indication that some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) could be setting blazes in retaliation over losing state funds under his administration.

He did not provide any evidence for this.

The Brazilian leader, who won election last year, also accused media organisations of exploiting the fires to undermine his government.

“Most of the media wants Brazil to end up like Venezuela,” he said, referring to political and economic turbulence in the neighbouring South American country.

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Brush fires burn in Guaranta do Norte municipality, Mato Grosso state (Corpo de Bombeiros de Mato Grosso/AP)

Amnesty International blamed the Brazilian government for the fires, which have escalated international concern over the vast rainforest that is a major absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Amnesty’s general secretary Kumi Naidoo said the rights group this year documented illegal land invasions and arson attacks near indigenous territories in the Amazon, including Rondonia state, where many fires are raging.

He said: “Instead of spreading outrageous lies or denying the scale of deforestation taking place, we urge the president to take immediate action to halt the progress of these fires.”

The WWF conservation group also challenged Mr Bolsonaro’s allegations about NGOs, saying they divert “the focus of attention from what really matters: the well-being of nature and the people of the Amazon”.

Brazil contains about 60% of the Amazon rainforest, whose degradation could have severe consequences for global climate and rainfall.

Mr Bolsonaro, who has said he wants to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms, won office after channelling outrage over the corruption scandals of the former government.

Filipe Martins, an adviser to Mr Bolsonaro, said on Twitter that the Brazilian government is committed to fighting illegal deforestation and that many other countries are causing environmental damage.

He said the Amazon will be saved by Brazil and not “the empty, hysterical and misleading rhetoric of the mainstream media, transnational bureaucrats and NGOs”.

Sergio Bergman, Argentina’s environment minister, appealed for people to overcome political or ideological divisions to protect the environment. He spoke at a five-day UN workshop on climate change in Brazil’s northern state of Bahia.

“We all, in a way, understand that it is not possible to keep using natural resources without limits,” Mr Bergman said.

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