Paris, the United Nations and EU called for the protection of the fire-plagued Amazon rainforest as Brazil’s right-wing president accused his French counterpart of having a “colonialist mentality” over the issue.
Official figures show nearly 73,000 forest fires were recorded in Brazil in the first eight months of the year -- the highest number for any year since 2013. Most were in the Amazon.
The extent of the area damaged by fires has yet to be determined, but smoke has choked Sao Paulo and several other Brazilian cities in the past week.
UN chief Antonio Guterres said on Thursday he was “deeply concerned” by the fires.
“In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity,” he said on Twitter.
“The Amazon must be protected.”
France’s President Emmanuel Macron said the wildfires were “an international crisis” and called on the globe’s most industrialized nations to address it at their summit this weekend.
“Our house is on fire. Literally. The Amazon, the lung of our planet which produces 20 percent of our oxygen is burning,” Macron said on Twitter on Thursday.
“It is an international crisis. Members of the G7, let’s talk in two days about this emergency.”
That did not sit well with Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.
“The French president’s suggestion that Amazon issues be discussed at the G-7 without participation by the countries in the region evokes a colonialist mentality that is out of place in the 21st century,” Bolsonaro wrote on Twitter.
The European Union yesterday piled pressure on Bolsonaro over fires raging in the Amazon basin, with Ireland and France saying they could block a trade deal with South America, reported Reuters.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel believes it should be discussed by world leaders when they meet for this weekend’s G7 summit, her spokesman said.
Neighbouring Peru, which contains much of the Amazon basin, announced it was “on alert” for wildfires spreading from the rainforest in Brazil and Bolivia.
Paraguay and Bolivia are battling separate wildfires that have devastated large areas of their rainforests.
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 data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
Bolsonaro instead attributes the fires to increased drought, and accuses environmental groups and NGOs of whipping up an “environmental psychosis” to harm Brazil’s economic interests.
“This environmental psychosis lets you do nothing,” the president lamented, adding that it was hampering the country’s development.
“I don’t want to finish the environment, I want to save Brazil,” said Bolsonaro, a climate change skeptic who had advocated opening up tribal lands and protected areas to farming and mining interests since assuming office in January.
“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,” he said.
Bolsonaro’s comments come as Brazil hosts a UN regional meeting on climate change in the northeastern city of Salvador ahead of December’s summit in Chile.
Climate change activists chanting slogans and waving banners demonstrated boisterously outside Brazil’s embassy in London yesterday, urging President Bolsonaro to do more to halt the fires in the Amazon rainforest, reported AFP.
Several hundred protesters gathered opposite the central London embassy, unfurling signs reading “stop destruction now”, “save our planet” and “I want you to panic”.
They chanted “climate justice” and “save the Amazon”.
NOT ‘CAPTAIN NERO’
“I do not defend the burnings, because there always was and always will be burnings. Unfortunately, this has always happened in the Amazon,” Bolsonaro said, referring to dry season, land-clearing fires.
“But accusing me of being a Captain Nero setting fire to things is irresponsible. It is campaigning against Brazil,” the president told reporters outside his Brasilia residence.
The reference to Captain Nero appeared to be to the Roman emperor said to have fiddled while Rome burned. Bolsonaro is a former army captain.
Forest fires tend to intensify during the dry season, which usually ends in late October or early November, as land is cleared to make way for crops or grazing.
“Just think, if the world begins imposing trade barriers, our agribusiness will fall, we will start to go backwards, the economy will start to get worse -- your life, the lives of newspaper editors, television owners, the lives of all Brazilians will be complicated, without exception. The press is committing suicide,” Bolsonaro said.
However, there are signs of growing concern from within the powerful agribusiness sector over Bolsonaro’s environmental isolationism.
The governors of Brazil’s Amazon states have also criticized the government for recent decisions by Germany and Norway to suspend Amazon aid projects.