Brazil’s Bolsonaro authorizes army to help fight Amazon fires

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Protesters with banners block the road outside of the Brazilian Embassy during a protest in Nicosia, Cyprus, on Friday. Photo: PTI

President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday (August 23) authorised the deployment of Brazil’s armed forces to help combat fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, as a growing global outcry over the blazes sparks protests and threatens 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 from various fires were visible for kilometers , a 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.

Wildfires in Chapada dos Guimaraes, in Mato Grosso state, Brazil. Photo: PTI

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.

After a late-night crisis meeting with members of his cabinet, Bolsonaro on Friday issued a decree permitting the deployment of armed forces to help extinguish fires and crack down on criminal activities in the region.

Bolsonaro’s decision came 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.

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Wildfires in Guaranta do Norte municipality, Mato Grosso state, Brazil. Photo: PTI

Protests are planned in Brazil’s major cities later on Friday, as European leaders express growing concern over the destruction.

In an escalating public row over the blazes, Macron on Friday accused Bolsonaro of lying to him on Brazil’s stance on climate change.

France will now block a trade deal between the European Union and the South American trade bloc Mercosur, which includes Brazil, a French presidential official said.

Macron had tweeted on Thursday that the fires burning in the Amazon amount to an international crisis and should be discussed as a top priority when the G7 countries meet this weekend in France.

Bolsonaro then blasted Macron for having a “colonialist mentality.” Ireland also threatened to block the trade deal. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the fires as “heartbreaking” and offered to help put them out.

“The extent of the fires in the Amazon area is shocking and threatening and not only for Brazil and the other affected countries, but also for the whole world,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesperson said on Friday.

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Protesters gather to demonstrate against the Brazilian government and the fires in the Amazon, in Berlin on Friday. Photo: PTI

Environmental specialists said that the fires have accompanied a rapid rate of deforestation in the Amazon region, which in July quadrupled as 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.

Brazils 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.
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 7,770 square kilometers of the eastern province of Santa Cruz for the past month.