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After pressure and protests, Brazilian president sends army to fight Amazon fires

(Bloomberg) — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said he’s sending troops to battle fires roaring through vast expanses of the Amazon as President Donald Trump offered U.S. support to combat the disaster.

Under growing domestic and international pressure, Bolsonaro on Friday promised “zero tolerance” for environmental crimes and pledged “strong action” to control fires — many of them set by loggers emboldened by his government’s disdain for environmental oversight.

“Forest fires exist everywhere in the world and that can’t be used as pretext for possible international sanctions,” he said in a rare televised speech that marked a departure from the dismissive tone of his previous statements. He added the flames have been spreading faster this year because of high temperatures, an extremely dry season, and strong winds. As he spoke, people protested by banging pots and pans in many Brazilian cities.


Smoke billows from the burning trunk of a tree in the surroundings of Porto Velho, Rondonia State, in the Amazon basin in west-central Brazil, on August 24, 2019.

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

Trump tweeted on Friday evening that that he had spoken with Bolsonaro about the fires and trade between the two countries. His tweet appeared hours after French President Emmanuel Macron — who’s about to host the Group of Seven summit — accused Bolsonaro of lying about his country’s commitments to fight climate change and threatened to block the European Union’s trade deal with the Mercosur countries of South America.

“Our future Trade prospects are very exciting and our relationship is strong, perhaps stronger than ever before,” Trump said in the tweet. “I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon Rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!”

Brazil is home to one third of the world’s rainforests, and a decade-long trend of improving forest protections has gone into reverse. Critics blame Brazil’s relapse on the rollback of environmental protections and enforcement in the Amazon in recent years.

While fires break out every year, one analysis showed that more than 75,000 have swept across the country since January, an 84% annual increase. Bolsonaro had previously relished criticism of his attitude toward the Amazon — jokingly referring to himself as “Captain Chainsaw” — while saying without presenting evidence that NGOs were setting the blazes to discredit his government.

“This government’s actions and speech encouraged those rampant fires,” Marina Silva, a former environment minister and presidential candidate, said in an interview. “Nobody should stimulate illegality, particularly those who have institutional responsibility.”

G-7 Summit

Macron vowed to make the burning of the Amazon jungle a priority at the summit, but the reactions of not only Trump, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel, suggested that the leaders about to gather in the French seaside resort of Biarritz were not in harmony on the crisis.

Merkel publicly disagreed with Macron. Her spokesman said she didn’t think upending the trade deal would achieve Macron’s aim of slowing deforestation in Brazil. Merkel’s spokesman, however, did back Macron’s decision to involve the international community, siding with him against Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro also faces outrage at home, with protesters marching against him in Brazil’s main cities on Friday.


A labourer gestures as he looks at a fire that spread to the farm he works on next to a highway in Nova Santa Helena municipality in northern Mato Grosso State, south in the Amazon basin in Brazil, on August 23, 2019.

JOAO LAET/AFP/Getty Images

His decision to deploy the Brazilian Army to the Amazon came after a week in which the public outcry only grew louder — with images of the flames and giant clouds of smoke appearing on screens around the world. The president’s decree ordered the armed forces to carry out “preventive and repressive actions against environmental crimes” and to combat fires in the region, including indigenous territories.

Earlier Friday, the French president’s office said that it had become clear that Bolsonaro wasn’t serious about his pledges to address climate change when he spoke to world leaders at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka earlier this year.

“The president can only conclude that President Bolsonaro lied to him in Osaka,” the statement said. “Under these conditions, France is opposed to the Mercosur deal.”

The French president’s remarks provoked an angry response from Bolsonaro, who accused him of acting like a colonialist. Issues relating to Brazil should not be discussed without the country at the table, Bolsonaro added.

“The news is really worrisome, but we need to lower the temperature, there are fires in Brazil every year,” Brazilian Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina Dias told reporters in Brasilia. “There were fires in Portugal, in Siberia, there were fires all over the world and Brazil wasn’t questioning them.”

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