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Brazil's Bolsonaro Causes Global Outrage Over Amazon Fires

A fire burns in highway margins in the city of Porto Velho, Rondonia state, part of Brazil's Amazon, Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019.
A fire burns in highway margins in the city of Porto Velho, Rondonia state, part of Brazil's Amazon, Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019.

The Group of Seven nations on Monday pledged $20 million to help Amazon countries fight fires, even as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said rich countries were treating the region like a “colony.”

The G-7 pledge came despite tensions between European countries and the Brazilian president, who suggested the West was angling to exploit Brazil’s natural resources.

“Look, does anyone help anyone — not including poor people, you know — without something in return? What have they wanted there for so long?” he said to journalists outside the presidential palace.

Bolsonaro has insulted adversaries and allies, disparaged women, blacks and homosexuals, and even praised his country’s 1964-1985 dictatorship. But nothing has rallied more anger at home and criticism from abroad than his response to fires raging in parts of the Amazon region.

The far-right populist initially questioned whether activist groups might have started the fires in an effort to damage the credibility of his government. Bolsonaro has called for looser environmental regulations in the world’s largest rainforest to spur development.

In response, European leaders threatened to block a major trade deal with Brazil that would benefit the very agricultural interests accused of driving deforestation.

In Brazil’s Para state, where fires have swept many areas, resident Moacir Cordeiro said Sunday that he was worried about their impact on nature and his health. Smoke rose from nearby trees as he spoke.

“I don’t think there are enough people to extinguish the fires,” said Cordeiro, who lives in the Alvorada da Amazonia region. He said it was difficult to breath at night because of the smoke.

Another man, Antonio de Jesus, was also worried.

“Nature shouldn’t be killed off like that,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday continued his feud with Bolsonaro, who had endorsed a Facebook post insulting Macron’s wife. Macron accused him of skipping a scheduled meeting with the French foreign minister in favor of a barber appointment and reiterating that Bolsonaro had lied to him.

Macron said: “It’s sad. First for him and for the Brazilians.”

He said Brazilian women “are doubtless ashamed to read that about their president” and that he hoped the country would soon have a president who could behave according to the standards of the office.

Bolsonaro, in turn, referred to Macron’s “ludicrous and unnecessary attacks on the Amazon” and accused the French leader of treating the region “as if we were a colony.”

Meanwhile, thousands of people have demonstrated in cities across Brazil and outside Brazilian embassies around the world. #PrayforAmazonia became a worldwide trending topic.

Bolsonaro has announced he would send 44,000 soldiers to help battle the blazes, which mostly seem to be charring land deforested, perhaps illegally, for farming and ranching rather than burning through stands of trees.

The move was welcomed by many critics, but some say it’s not enough and comes too late.

In violating environmental agreements, Brazil has been discredited and “unable to exercise any type of leadership on the international stage,” said Mauricio Santoro, an international relations professor at Rio de Janeiro State University.

Brazilian military planes began dumping water on fires in the Amazon state of Rondonia over the weekend, and a few hundred of the promised troops deployed into the fire zone. But many Brazilians again took to the streets in Rio de Janeiro and other cities Sunday to demand the administration do more.

Critics say the large number of fires this year has been stoked by Bolsonaro’s encouragement of farmers, loggers and ranchers to speed efforts to strip away forest. Although he has now vowed to protect the area, they say it is only out of fear of a diplomatic crisis and economic losses.

Meeting at a summit in France, the G-7 leaders announced they have agreed to an immediate $20 million fund to help Amazon countries fight wildfires and launch a long-term global initiative to protect the rainforest.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country and others will talk with Brazil about reforestation in the Amazon once the fires have been extinguished.

Even so, Germany and Norway recently cut tens of millions of dollars in donations to Brazilian forestry projects, saying Bolsonaro’s administration isn’t committed to curbing deforestation.

Fires are common during Brazil’s dry season, but the numbers surged this year. The country’s National Space Research Institute, which monitors deforestation, has recorded more than 77,000 wildfires in Brazil this year, a record since the institute began keeping records in 2013. That is an 85% rise over last year, and about half of the fires have been in the Amazon region — with more than half of those coming just in the past month.

“The government created a sense of impunity among farmers who were willing to commit illegal acts to deforest,” he said,” said Rómulo Batista, a member of Greenpeace Brazil’s Amazonia Campaign.

Batista said plant and animal species are under threat, people living in the Amazon region are suffering respiratory problems and “the rise in deforestation can completely alter the rain patterns by region and devastate agriculture, even in South America.”

Bolsonaro has argued with critics who note that the Amazon is considered crucial for efforts to contain climate change.

Brazil’s federal police agency announced Sunday that it would investigate reports that farmers in Para state, one of those most affected by the blazes, had called for “a day of fire” to ignite fires Aug. 10. Local news media said a group organized the action over WhatsApp to show support for Bolsonaro’s efforts to loosen environmental regulations.

Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who oversees the police, said on Twitter that Bolsonaro “asked for a rigorous investigation” and said “the criminal fires will be severely punished.”