Bolsonaro says Brazil lacks means to fight Amazon fires, backtracks on NGO accusations

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Thursday said his government lacks the resources to fight wildfires in the Amazon rainforest after satellite images showed a record number of burning spots this year.

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In a speech broadcast live on Facebook, Bolsonaro said the government is investigating the fires. He also said he never claimed non-governmental organisations (NGO) were starting fires in the forest, claiming he was only voicing his suspicions.

Wildfires in the world’s largest rainforest have surged 83% so far this year when compared to the same period in 2018, according to Brazil‘s space research agency INPE.

The government agency has registered 72,843 fires, the highest number since records began in 2013. More than 9,500 have been spotted by satellites since last Thursday alone.

On Wednesday, Bolsonaro enraged environmentalists by making unfounded claims that NGOs were starting the fires out of anger after he cut their funding.

“Maybe — I am not affirming it — these (NGO people) are carrying out some criminal actions to draw attention against me, against the government of Brazil,” Bolsonaro told reporters.

When asked if he had evidence, the president did not provide any.

“There is a war going on in the world against Brazil, an information war,” Bolsonaro said.

Global outrage has torn through social media, with #PrayforAmazonas turning into one of the world’s top trending topic on Twitter.

Research institute head forced to resign

Earlier this month, the head of the space research institute was forced to leave his position after standing up to the president’s accusations that deforestation data had been manipulated to tarnish the image of his administration.

The states that have been most affected by fires this year are Mato Grosso, Para and Amazonas – all in the Amazon region – accounting for 41.7 percent of all fires.

“It is very difficult to have natural fires in the Amazon; it happens but the majority come from the hand of humans,” said Paulo Moutinho, co-founder of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute.

Moutinho, who has been working in the Amazon forests for nearly 30 years, said fires are mostly used to clean up vast areas of land for farming or logging.

The fires can easily get out of control, especially now during the Amazon’s dry season, and spread to densely forested protected areas.

This year, the Amazon has not suffered from serious dryness, Moutinho said. “We’re lucky. If we had had droughts like in the past four years, this would be even worse.”

Powerful rural caucus

Bolsonaro, who once threatened to leave the Paris climate accord, has repeatedly attacked environmental nonprofits, seen as obstacles in his quest to develop the country’s full economic potential, including in protected areas.

Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles are both close to the powerful rural caucus in Congress and have been urging more development and economic opportunities in the Amazon region, which they consider overly protected by current legislation.

Some NGOs, environmentalists and academics have been blaming the administration’s pro-development policies for a sharp increase in Amazon deforestation shown in the latest data from the space research institute.

International pressure mounts

The government is also facing international pressure to protect the vast rainforest from illegal logging or mining activities. The Amazon is often referred to as the lungs of our planet because it is a major absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Citing Brazil’s apparent lack of commitment to fighting deforestation, Germany and Norway have decided to withhold more than $60 million in funds earmarked for sustainability projects in Brazil’s forests.

French and German leaders have also threatened not to ratify a trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur countries to pressure Brazil into complying with its environmental pledges within the Paris Climate Agreement.

But experts say Brazilians and particularly farmers could be the first victims of excessive deforestation, as it could affect the regional climate, bringing higher temperatures and less rain.

Meanwhile, the environment minister was booed Wednesday as he took the stage at a five-day UN workshop on climate change in the northern state of Bahia – an event he had tried to cancel earlier this year.

Some in the audience shouted while waving signs reading, “Stop Ecocide” or “The Amazon is burning”.

Salles spoke briefly, saying climate change needs to be addressed.

“People are asking for more and more actions. … There is an acknowledgment that we are in a situation of crisis and emergency,” said Manuel Pulgar Vidal, former environment minister of Peru, who attended the event.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)