AFP/Porto Velho, Brazil
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said yesterday he is considering deploying the army to help combat fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, as a growing global outcry over the blazes sparks protests and threatens to torpedo a huge trade deal.
Plumes of thick smoke rose into the sky above dense forest in the northwestern state of Rondonia where bright orange flames of various fires were visible for kilometres, an AFP photographer reported.
“It’s not normal and it’s like this because of the smoke from the fires,” said a hotel employee in the state capital Porto Velho, which was covered by a layer of smoke as fires burned near the city.
The fires in the world’s largest rainforest have sparked street protests around the planet and ignited a war of words between Bolsonaro and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, who has described the wildfires as an “international crisis” and vowed to block a trade agreement between the European Union and South American countries.
The latest official figures show 76,720 forest fires were recorded in Brazil so far this year — the highest number for any year since 2013 — which experts blame on accelerating deforestation as land is cleared during the months-long dry season to make way for crops or grazing.
More than half are in the Amazon.
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 Sao Paulo, where thick smog turned day into night on Monday.
Bolsonaro told reporters in Brazil’s capital Brasilia that he would decide on whether to send the army to the fire-ravaged areas, as he faced growing pressure to act.
“The tendency is that,” Bolsonaro said, after holding a late-night crisis meeting with members of his cabinet.
Bolsonaro’s remarks come 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 later yesterday, as European leaders express growing concern over the destruction.
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, which Bolsonaro previously described as lies and prompted the sacking of the agency’s head.
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, Bolsonaro accused NGOs of starting the fires.
Brazil’s powerful agriculture sector — a key supporter of Bolsonaro — has expressed concerns over the president’s rhetoric, fearing a boycott of their products in key markets.
Thomaz Favaro of Control Risks consultancy told AFP Bolsonaro’s comments were “raising the risks of sanctions and retaliation, including against the EU-Mercosur deal.”
“Brazil has gone from being a global model of forest conservation to an international pariah,” Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarape Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro, told AFP.
Bolsonaro had given “ammunition” to countries opposed to the EU-Mercosur deal, said Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at Getulio Vargas Foundation.
The mayor of Manaus, Brazil’s largest city in the Amazon, told reporters yesterday the rainforest was “fundamental for the world.”
“The entire world demands sensible, intelligent, appropriate governance for the Amazon at the risk of regrettable consequences for our country,” Arthur Virgilio Neto said on the sidelines of a UN climate change workshop in the northeastern city of Salvador.
Neighboring Paraguay and Bolivia are also battling separate wildfires that have devastated large areas of their rainforests.
The Bolivian government on Friday took delivery of a “supertanker” aircraft to help extinguish fires that have destroyed around 7,770sq km (3,000sq miles) of the eastern province of Santa Cruz for the past month.
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