Amazon rainforest fires: Jair Bolsonaro sends Brazilian army to put out huge blaze as G7 leaders hold emergency talks

Phoebe Weston
A firefighter battles against the fire in Rio Branco, in the Amazonian State of Acre: EPA

Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro has bowed to international pressure and sent in the military to battle huge blazes sweeping across the Amazon, after G7 leaders meeting in Biarritz threatened to tear up a trade deal with South America.

Amid a global chorus of concern and condemnation, Mr Bolsonaro pledged to mobilise the army to help combat the fires, while his administration launched a diplomatic charm offensive to try to build bridges overseas.

Images of fires raging in the Amazon broadcast around the globe sparked protests outside Brazilian embassies from Mexico City and Lima to London and Paris. In the Cypriot capital Nicosia, a sign tied to the railings of Brazil’s diplomatic mission read: “The Amazon belongs to Earth not to the Brazilian president.”

Both France and Ireland threatened to oppose an European Union (EU) trade deal struck in June with a regional South American bloc.

Mr Bolsonaro initially accused non-governmental organisations of setting the forest on fire without providing any evidence. He then attributed the scale of the fires to dryer-than-average weather.

Earlier this week leaked documents showed the Brazilian president is looking to sabotage conservation efforts and wants to build bridges, motorway and hydroelectric plants in the jungle.

Now the Brazilian president has made a diplomatic U-turn and has announced that the country’s armed forces will assist in putting out fires for a month, saying “the protection of the forest is our duty”.

The army will be deployed to border areas, indigenous territories and other affected regions in the Amazon, according to a presidential decree authorising use of the army.

“We are aware of that and will act to combat deforestation and criminal activities that put people at risk in the Amazon,” he said. “We are a government of zero tolerance for crime, and in the environmental field it will not be different.”

Mr Bolsonaro has previously described rainforest protections as an obstacle to Brazil’s economic development, sparring with critics who note that the Amazon produces vast amounts of oxygen and is considered crucial for efforts to contain climate change.

As the president spoke, thousands of Brazilians demonstrated in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and the capital of Brasilia demanding the government announce concrete actions to curb the fires.

People also banged pots from their homes, a traditional mode of protest in South America.

Neighbouring Bolivia and Paraguay have also struggled to contain fires that swept through woods and fields, in many cases set to clear land for farming.

About 2,900 square miles of land has been affected in Bolivia, Defence Minister Javier Zavaleta said.

A B747-400 SuperTanker arrived in Bolivia and began flying over devastated areas to help put out the fires and protect forests. The US-based aircraft can carry nearly 76,000 litres (20,000 gallons) of retardant, a substance used to stop fires.

Some 140 square miles have burned in northern Paraguay, near the borders with Brazil and Bolivia, said Joaquin Roa, a Paraguayan state emergency official. He said the situation had stabilised.

Close to 20 per cent of the Amazon has already been deforested, said Thomas Lovejoy, a George Mason University environmental scientist.

US president Donald Trump said that he had spoken with Mr Bolsonaro.

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Boris Johnson on the Amazon fires

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

Argentina, which is struggling with rising poverty and austerity measures, has offered to send emergency workers to Brazil and Bolivia to help battle the fires. Chile also offered aid.

The Brazilian government has said European countries are exaggerating Brazil’s environmental problems in order to disrupt its commercial interests.

Mr Bolsonaro, who has said he wants to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms, said it was difficult to curb increasing deforestation with limited resources.

“It’s not easy to fight deforestation, our Amazon area is bigger than all of Europe,” he said. “We’ll do what we can to fight this crime.”

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