Brazilian government pushes back against mounting national and international pressure over its environmental policies, as a record number of fires rip through the Amazon rainforest.
France’s Emmanuel Macron led a growing wave of international pressure on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest on Friday, telling him Paris would block efforts to ink the European Union’s free-trade deal with the Mercosur.
With global leaders gearing up for the G7 summit, which opens Saturday in Biarritz, F r a n c e , M a c r o n d r e w
Bolsonaro’s ire by saying the wildfires would be high on the agenda and pledging that delegates would hammer out “concrete measures” to tackle them.Bolsonaro had earlier blasted Macron for a “colonialist mentality”, prompting the French president to hit back, accusing his Brazilian counterpart of lying in pledges to fight global warming.
“Given the attitude of Brazil over the last weeks, the president can only conclude that President Bolsonaro lied to him at the Osaka [G20] summit” in June, a French presidential official said.
As a result, France would oppose a trade deal between the EU and the Mercosur, effectively killing any chance of it being ratified, the spokesperson said.
Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar also threatened Friday to block the trade deal if Brazil failed to curb the fires.
So far this year, there have been 76,720 forest fires in Brazil – the highest number since 2013, official figures show, with more than half in the Amazon rainforest.
Around 700 new fires were ignited between Wednesday and Thursday, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), fuelling air contamination in cities including São Paulo, where thick smog turned day into night on Monday.
“The Amazon rainforest – the lungs which produce 20 percent of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire,” Macron tweeted late on Thursday, suggesting it be high on the summit agenda.
Moves to prioritise the Amazon wildfires on the G7 agenda won backing from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeting that the fires were “heartbreaking” and offering help to put them out. But in a sign of EU disagreement, Germany said Macron’s proposal to block the Mercosur deal was “not the right response.”
“The Mercosur-EU deal hasn’t been ratified yet and there are requirements in it about sustainability and the protection of the indigenous, for example,” Renata Amaral, director of international trade at the Barral MJorge consultancy firm, said. “The Bolsonaro government could start to see setbacks in the area he cherishes the most.”
By yesterday evening, Bolsonaro seemed to have budged, saying he was considering deploying the Army to help combat fires raging in the Amazon rainforest
“The tendency is that,” Bolsonaro told reporters in Brasilia when asked if he was considering sending the military.
A decision would be made Friday, he added, after holding a late-night crisis meeting with members of his Cabinet.
Bolsonaro’s remarks came as demonstrations are held around the world over the fires in the Amazon forest, a region considered the “lungs of the planet” and seen as crucial to keeping climate change in check.
Protests were planned in Brazil’s major cities for Friday and outside Embassies across the world, including Buenos Aires.
Environmental specialists say the fires have accompanied a rapid rate of deforestation in the Amazon region, which in July quadrupled compared to the same month in 2018, according to INPE data.
Bolsonaro instead attributes the blazes to increased drought, and accuses environmental groups and NGOs of whipping up an “environmental psychosis” to harm Brazil’s economic interests. Earlier in the week the Brazilian leader accused non-government organisations of starting the fires.
“Brazil has gone from being a global model of forest conservation to an international pariah,” said Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarape Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro. “The president has only himself to blame.”
Peru, which contains much of the Amazon basin, announced it was “on alert” for wildfires. Paraguay and Bolivia are battling separate wildfires that have devastated large areas of their rainforests.
Smoke from the fires at the Amazon rainforest and other regions from Brazil will arrive in northern Argentina tomorrow and, most likely, by next week will reach Buenos Aires, experts from the National Meterological Service said yesterday.
President Mauricio Macri said yesterday “we are all worried” about the fires and said he had offered help to the Bolsonaro government’s bid to contain the flames.
The Brazilian government initially tried to push back against mounting national and international pressure over its environmental policies as outrage grew.
Environment Minister Ricardo Salles announced the creation of an Amazon task force in an interview with local news website UOL, while President Jair Bolsonaro’s senior foreign policy adviser tweeted a long English-language thread defending Brazil’s record on Amazon deforestation and attacking media coverage.
World Bank data shows that there are at least 20 counties that maintain more forest as a proportion of their territory than Brazil, including Japan, Sweden and the Congo. Brazil is also the country that deforests at a faster rate than any other, according to the research NGO World Resources Institute.
Data from the National Institute of Space Research showed an 84 percent year-on-year increase in forest fires in 2019, many caused by loggers encouraged by the government’s disdain for environmental oversight. While Bolsonaro relishes criticism of his attitude toward the Amazon – jokingly referring to himself as ‘Captain Chainsaw’ – his supporters in the agricultural sector fear a backlash from consumers both in Brazil and abroad.
“In terms of environmental management we’re witnessing a disaster,” Jairo Nicolau, a political science professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said. “It’s not about just a different policy. We’re seeing total disorganisation in an area in which there was a culture of continuity from one government to the next.“
Senior figures in Brazil’s agricultural sector have warned the president of the potential economic repercussions of his policies, though so far Bolsonaro himself has shown little sign of paying heed.
Macri expresses concerns, offers Bolsonaro help
President Mauricio Macri has offered to help his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro control the forest fires now raging the Amazon basin, declaring himself “alarmed and moved” by the environmental catastrophe.
“The devastating fires in the region’s main reserve of oxygen hurt us, worry us and make it urgent to offer our co-operation,” Macri posted on his social media accounts, adding: “Our emergency system is now at the disposal of Brazil and Bolivia.”
“I’ve also communicated with the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, to follow closely the handling of the emergency. We’re committed to aiding our neighbours to combat the forest fires.”
Later in the day, inaugurating the Ituzaingó-Ayolas international crossing near the Yacyretá hydro-electric dam in conjunction with his Paraguayan colleague Mario Abdo Benítez, Macri said: “As Argentines and as members of Mercosur we are deeply committed to the environment and worried about what is happening with the Amazonian fires,” again confirming his contact with Bolsonaro “to offer Argentine aid to combat this catastrophe” and reiterating his concern over the ecological disaster also affecting “the Bolivian people.”
The crisis triggered comment from presidents across the globe ranging from Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who tweeted: “We Bolivians have faced many difficult moments in unity and have overcome them. Now we are working together on land and in the air to put out the fire in Chiquitanía” to France’s Emmanuel Macron, who sees the disaster and Brazilian “lies” as sufficient reason to withdraw French support from the agreement between the European Union and Mercosur.