Global worry over Amazon fires escalates; Brazil's Bolsonaro defiant

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita in Brazil's Amazonas state, on Aug 17.
Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita in Brazil's Amazonas state, on Aug 17.PHOTO: REUTERS
A view of the sky in Rio Branca, Brazil, obscured by smoke from fires in the Amazon forest.
A view of the sky in Rio Branca, Brazil, obscured by smoke from fires in the Amazon forest.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP/BLOOMBERG) - Amid global concern about raging Amazon fires, Brazil on Thursday (Aug 22) said it was the target of a smear campaign by critics who contend President Jair Bolsonaro is not doing enough to curb widespread deforestation.

The growing 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 described Brazil's rainforest protections as an obstacle to economic development.

The President's defiance came as Brazilian federal experts reported a record number of wildfires across the country this year, up 84 per cent 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.

Mr Onyx Lorenzoni, the President's chief of staff, 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 Brazilian news website globo.com.

The allegation came after Germany and Norway, citing Brazil's apparent lack of commitment to fighting deforestation, decided to withhold more than US$60 million (S$83.2 million) in funds earmarked for sustainability projects in Brazilian forests.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the Amazon fires are an international crisis and that Group of Seven (G-7) leaders should hold an urgent meeting about them at their summit in France this weekend.

"Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rainforest - the lungs which produces 20 per cent of our planet's oxygen - is on fire," Mr Macron tweeted.

Mr Bolsonaro took exception, saying discussing the issue without his involvement showed a “colonial mentality that isn’t appropriate for the 21st century.”

“I regret that President Macron is seeking to use the internal matters of Brazil and other Amazon countries for political gain,” Bolsanaro said in a tweet.

United Nations 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 of increasing deforestation, according to local media. 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 groups could be setting blazes in retaliation for losing state funds under his administration. He did not provide any evidence.

Mr Bolsonaro, who won the 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 neighboring South American country.

London-based 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.

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, said Mr Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty's secretary-general.

"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," he said.

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 per cent 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.

Mr 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.

The Amazon will be saved by Brazil and not "the empty, hysterical and misleading rhetoric of the mainstream media, transnational bureaucrats and NGOs," Mr Martins said.

Mr 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.