Amazon fires: Brazilian states ask for military help amid record blazes

Thousands protest over Bolsonaro’s policies as he authorises use of military to fight fires

Fires raging in Brazil's Amazon rainforest have hit a record high number this year, prompting fresh scrutiny of President Bolsonaro's environmental stewardship. Video: Reuters

 

Six states in Brazil’s Amazon region requested military help on Saturday to combat record fires that are tearing through the rainforest, provoking an international outcry because of the Amazon’s central role in combating global warming.

The states of Para, Rondonia, Roraima, Tocantins, Acre and Mato Grosso - out of the region’s nine - have requested military assistance, according to a spokeswoman for the president’s office. The request comes as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro authorised the use of the military to battle the huge blazes sweeping parts of the Amazon while thousands took to the streets to protest against his environmental policies.

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest and its protection is seen as vital to the fight against climate change because of the vast amounts of carbon dioxide it absorbs.

A protester holds a sign with the names of various indigenous tribes during a demonstration to demand for more protection for the Amazon rainforest, in Sao Paulo, on Friday. Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters
A protester holds a sign with the names of various indigenous tribes during a demonstration to demand for more protection for the Amazon rainforest, in Sao Paulo, on Friday. Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters

Brazil has 44,000 troops stationed in its northern Amazon region that are available to combat forest fires and could send more from elsewhere in the country, said Raul Botelho, the joint chief of staff for the country’s military.

In a briefing with reporters, Mr Botelho and other officials did not say how many troops would be involved and gave few operational details of how they would be used and where.

Defense minister Fernando Azevedo said forces would be concentrated in certain areas depending on the individual mission.

A charred trunk is seen on a tract of Amazon jungle that was recently burned by loggers and farmers in Porto Velho, Brazil. Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
A charred trunk is seen on a tract of Amazon jungle that was recently burned by loggers and farmers in Porto Velho, Brazil. Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

For example, in Porto Velho in Rondonia state, two planes would be made available that have capacity to carry 12,000 liters of water mixed with fire retardant, as well as an infantry brigade, river patrol forces and the local office of the defense Ministry’s Amazon monitoring unit, he said.

A lush forest sits next to a field of charred trees destroyed by wildfires near Porto Velho, Brazil, on Friday. Photograph: Victor R Caivano/AP
A lush forest sits next to a field of charred trees destroyed by wildfires near Porto Velho, Brazil, on Friday. Photograph: Victor R Caivano/AP

On Saturday, fewer than 50 personnel will be sent from Brasilia to Porto Velho in Rondonia state to support operations there, including 30 firefighters and 18 communications specialists, Mr Botelho said.

Alfredo Sirkis, executive director of think tank Brazil Climate Center and a founder of Brazil’s Green Party, said while he supported military involvement, he doubted that anyone would be able to put out the existing fires.

“Once you have a huge forest fire like that, especially when you don’t have all the kind of forest fire-fighting equipment that you have in places like the US or Portugal, it’s difficult to extinguish,” he said. “They’ll only be extinguished by themselves depending on the weather conditions.”

Handout aerial picture released by Greenpeace showing smoke billowing from fires in the Amazon biome in the municipality of Altamira, Brazil. Photograph: Victor Moriyama/Greenpeace/AFP/Getty Images
Handout aerial picture released by Greenpeace showing smoke billowing from fires in the Amazon biome in the municipality of Altamira, Brazil. Photograph: Victor Moriyama/Greenpeace/AFP/Getty Images

The military can help to prevent additional forest fires by enforcing environmental laws and stopping people from setting the fires, Sirkis said.

Environmentalists have said that farmers clearing land for pasture were responsible for the uptick in fires.

Similarly, Mr Sirkis blamed the fires on speculators seeking to clear the land they hope to later sell for farming, saying they have been emboldened by Mr Bolsonaro’s strong rhetoric in favor of development of the Amazon region.

mr Bolsonaro enraged critics on Wednesday when he accused non-governmental organisations of burning down the Amazon rainforest to hurt his government. But on Thursday he admitted for the first time that farmers might be involved in lighting fires in the region.–Reuters