Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro seemed to be making a surprising reversal when he announced plans to send armed forces to fight the fires in the Amazon Friday night, the day before world leaders arrive at the G7 summit in Europe.
While Bolsonaro has described the burning in the Amazon – which is at the highest level since 2013 – as a result of warmer weather, French President Emmanuel Macron said he wants the fires on the summit agenda. Some of the countries attending have said they would block a trade deal between the European Union and Brazil’s economic and political bloc unless the country takes action.
The G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) are not alone in applying pressure on the Brazilian government when it comes to responding to the Amazon fires; political leaders, civil society leaders and celebrities around the world have called for an end to the destruction of the forest, which contains at least 10% of the planet’s biodiversity.
G7 leaders have been clear about their priority on stopping the burning.
“Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs of our planet which produces 20% of our oxygen – is on fire. It is an international crisis,” Macron tweeted.
A Downing Street spokesperson told CNN that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson believes “we need international action to protect the world’s rainforests” and he “will use G7 to call for a renewed focus on protecting nature and tackling climate change together.”
And President Donald Trump tweeted on Friday that the US is willing to assist the efforts to fight the fires.
“Our future Trade prospects are very exciting and our relationship is strong, perhaps stronger than ever before. I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon Rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!” Trump tweeted.
German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze added the trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur, the economic and political bloc comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, “cannot be justified without guarantees that the rainforest will be protected.”
Schulze said South America, and Brazil in particular, “deserve our support when it comes to preserving the rainforest. … However, Brazil itself must want this assistance, and not counteract it with a national policy of increased clearance,” she said.
Bolsonaro calls comments ‘sensationalist’
Bolsonaro has pushed back against some of the concern. He called Macron’s comments “sensationalist” and accused him of using the fires for political gain.
“I regret that President Macron is seeking to instrumentalize an internal issue in Brazil and in other Amazonian countries for personal political gains,” Bolsonaro tweeted.
He also rebuked the idea of international sanctions.
“Forest fires exist around the world, and this cannot serve as a pretext for possible international sanctions,” Bolsonaro said during his speech Friday. He added that world leaders need to be calm when discussing the wildfires.
“Spreading unfounded data and messages inside or outside Brazil does not help solve the problem and lends itself only to political use and misinformation,” he said.
However, Bolsonaro did authorize troops to deploy starting Saturday for the next month, according to a presidential decree obtained by CNN. Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, is also hiring hundreds of temporary firefighters to help fight the fires, the agency announced on Friday.
“The Amazon rainforest is an essential part of our history, our territory and everything that makes us feel,” Bolsonaro said. “Being Brazilian, our wealth is invaluable both in terms of biodiversity and natural resources.”
Responsibility ‘lies squarely with President Bolsonaro’
Many advocacy and environmental groups are blaming Bolsonaro’s policies for enabling the rate of fires in the Amazon to increase.
“We are in a traditionally hot, dry and high-wind season, where, unfortunately, burns occur every year in the Amazon region,” Bolsonaro said. “In rainier years, the fires are less intense. In warmer years, as in this 2019, they occur more often.”
Brazil’s space research center (INPE) said this week that the country has seen an 85% increase in fires this year, compared with the same period last year. More than half were in the Amazon region.
Farmers and ranchers have long used fire to clear land, and are likely behind the unusually large number fires burning in the Amazon today, said Christian Poirier, the program director of non-profit organization Amazon Watch.
This year’s fires fit with an established seasonal agricultural pattern, said CNN meteorologist Haley Brink.
“It’s the best time to burn because the vegetation is dry. (Farmers) wait for the dry season and they start burning and clearing the areas so that their cattle can graze. And that’s what we’re suspecting is going on down there.”
Amnesty International on Thursday said responsibility for the fires “lies squarely with President Bolsonaro and his government,” adding that his government’s “disastrous policy of opening up the rainforest for destruction (is) what has paved the way for this current crisis.”
Environmental organizations and researchers say the wildfires were set by cattle ranchers and loggers who want to clear and utilize the land, emboldened by the country’s pro-business President, who made campaign promises to restore the economy by exploring the Amazon’s economic potential.
CNN’s Taylor Barnes, Abel Alvarado and Amir Vera contributed from Atlanta and Barbara Wojazer and Ivana Kottasová contributed from London.