Brazil mobilises armed forces to contain fires as outrage mounts

Farm worker Neri dos Santos Silva is silhouetted against an encroaching fire threat after he spent hours digging trenches to keep the flames from spreading to the farm he works on.
Farm worker Neri dos Santos Silva is silhouetted against an encroaching fire threat after he spent hours digging trenches to keep the flames from spreading to the farm he works on.PHOTO: AP

RIO DE JANEIRO • As an ecological disaster in the Amazon escalated into a global political crisis, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has taken the rare step of mobilising the armed forces to help contain blazes of a scale not seen in nearly a decade.

Yesterday, Brazil said military aircraft and 44,000 troops would be available to fight fires sweeping through parts of the Amazon region. Mr Bolsonaro's sudden reversal, after days of dismissing the fires, came as international outrage grew over the rising deforestation in the world's largest tropical rainforest.

European leaders threatened to cancel a major trade deal, protesters staged demonstrations outside Brazilian embassies and calls for a boycott of Brazilian products snowballed on social media.

As a chorus of condemnation intensified, Brazil braced itself for the prospect of punitive measures that could severely damage an economy that is already sputtering after a brutal recession and the country's far-right populist President faced a withering reckoning.

On Friday, Mr Bolsonaro said he was planning to send the military to enforce environmental laws and to help contain the fires, starting yesterday.

"Whatever is within our power we will do," he told reporters. "The problem is resources."

While he did not indicate what resources the military would bring to bear, he gave a televised address on Friday evening to describe the government's response plan. He said the government would take a "zero tolerance" approach to environmental crimes. But he also said Brazilians living in the states that encompass the Amazon must be provided with broader opportunities to make a decent living.

It was unlikely that Mr Bolsonaro's plan could address the underlying crisis without a fundamental shift in his environmental policies, which have emboldened miners, loggers and farmers to strip and burn protected areas with a sense of impunity.


Since the nationalist former army captain took office in January, deforestation has increased sharply across Brazil, including in indigenous territories.

Mr Bolsonaro has pledged to make it easier for industries to gain access to protected areas, arguing that native communities are in control of unreasonably vast areas that contain enormous wealth.

Brazil's stretch of the Amazon lost more than 3,445 sq km of forest cover during the first seven months of the year, a 39 per cent increase over the same period last year.

Experts say that spike appears to be the main driver of the fires in the Amazon this year.

The number of fires in the Amazon so far this year, 40,341, is the highest since 2010, and roughly 35 per cent higher than the average for the first eight months of the year, according to Brazil's National Institute of Space Research agency, which tracks deforestation and forest fires using satellite images.

In what has become an unusually nasty exchange among leaders of major democracies, President Emmanuel Macron of France went so far as to accuse Mr Bolsonaro of lying about being committed to fighting climate change and protecting the Amazon. He also said he would try to kill a major trade deal between Europe and South America that has been years in the making.

Mr Bolsonaro fired back that Mr Macron was the liar, chiding him for releasing "photos from the past century" to generate "hatred against Brazil". To be fair, Mr Bolsonaro has a point: the fiery images zooming across social media that have focused world attention on a real crisis have not always been what they seem.

Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance, shared a dramatic view of a glowing strip of flames and smoke with his 120 million Facebook followers and nearly 80 million Twitter followers, but the photo was taken in 2013, far from the Amazon.

The photo Mr Macron tweeted, also shared by Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio and singer Ricky Martin, came from a stock photo catalogue and is credited to a photographer who died in 2003.

Pushing back, Brazil's Minister of Agriculture Tereza Cristina Correa da Costa Dias told reporters many observers were conflating slash-and-burn fires regularly used to clear and renourish farmland with out-of-control forest fires.

"In California, fires kill people and burn houses," she said, arguing that Brazil is facing undue criticism.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 25, 2019, with the headline 'Brazil mobilises armed forces to contain fires as outrage mounts'. Print Edition | Subscribe