Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro said on Friday he may mobilise the army to help combat fires sweeping through the Amazon rainforest, as international condemnation and pressure mounted for tough action to quell the unfolding crisis.
Having first dismissed the fires as natural, then blaming non-governmental organisations without evidence for lighting them, Mr Bolsonaro struck a more serious note on Friday, saying he would summon top cabinet members to tailor a response.
Asked by reporters in Brasilia if he would send in the army, he said: “That is the expectation.”
Edson Leal Pujol, head of Brazil’s armed forces, said his soldiers were ready to defend the Amazon, though his words also appeared to refer to threats other than the fires.
“To the unwary who insist on safeguarding the purposes of the Brazilian Amazon, make no mistake, soldiers will always be alert and vigilant, ready to defend and repel any kind of threat,” he said at an event in Brasilia.
Forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon, which accounts for more than half of the world’s largest rainforest, have surged 83 per cent this year, according to government data, destroying vast swathes of a vital bulwark against global climate change.
Environmentalists blamed the sharp rise on farmers setting the forest alight to clear land for pasture. Farmers may have had at least tacit encouragement from the right-wing president, who took power in January. Bolsonaro has repeatedly said he believes Brazil should open up the Amazon to business interests, allowing mining, agricultural and logging companies to exploit its natural resources.
On Thursday, Mr Bolsonaro admitted for the first time that farmers may be behind some of the fires. The president is set to meet with a team that includes defence and environment ministers on Friday evening.
As the fires burned, foreign pressure continued to grow. Several hundred activists protested outside the Brazilian embassies in Paris and London on Friday.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar threatened that Ireland will vote against the Mercosur trade deal with South American countries unless Brazil observes environmental standards and protects the Amazon rainforest.
The leaders of Britain, France and Germany added their voices to an international chorus of concern.
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said the fires in the Amazon were an “international crisis” and called for them to be top of the agenda at the G7 summit, prompting a furious response from Brazil’s leader.
Mr Macron’s office added that, given this context, France would be opposed to the EU Mercosur farming deal struck earlier this year between the European Union and the Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
British prime minister Boris Johnson was “deeply concerned” about the fires and “the impact of the tragic loss of these precious habitats”, and would use the summit of G7 leaders this weekend to call for a renewed focus on protecting nature, a spokeswoman said.
German chancellor Angela Merkel also believed the fires should be on the G7 agenda.
Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at Britain’s Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, urged that import sanctions be imposed on Brazil because of the fires.
“Immediate action is necessary to extinguish the current fires and prevent future ones,” the Brazilian scientist said.
On Thursday, Mr Bolsonaro responded angrily to what he saw as foreign interference.
“These countries that send money here, they don’t send it out of charity . . . they send it with the aim of interfering with our sovereignty,” he said.
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” about the effect of the fires on the global climate crisis.
“In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity.”
The European Commission said it supports the call from the French president to discuss the Amazon rainforest fires at the G7 meeting in France this weekend.
The commission’s chief spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said: “The commission is deeply worried. The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and contains one-tenth of the world’s species.
“That is why we do welcome president Macron’s intention to discuss this during the G7 meeting. The sense of urgency is indeed warranted.”
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said the fires were being “aided and abetted by the Brazilian government”. The burning of the rainforest was “an act of shocking environmental vandalism with global consequences”.
Brazil has had more than 72,000 fires this year, an 83 per cent increase on the same period in 2018, says the country’s National Institute for Space Research. More than half were in the Amazon.
There was a sharp rise in deforestation during July, which has been followed by extensive burning in August. Local newspapers say farmers in some regions are organising “fire days” to take advantage of weaker enforcement by the authorities. – Reuters, Guardian and agencies