Global pressure over Amazon fires escalates, Bolsonaro defiant

France, Germany and Ireland stepped up pressure on Brazil Friday as the country’s National Institute for Space Research reported nearly 2,500 new fires in 48 hours.

Amid global concern about raging fires in the Amazon, Brazil's government complained Thursday that it is being targeted in smear campaign by critics who contend President Jair Bolsonaro is not doing enough to curb widespread deforestation.

The threat to what some call "the lungs of the planet" has ignited a bitter dispute about who is to blame during the tenure of a leader who has described Brazil's rainforest protections as an obstacle to economic development and who traded Twitter jabs on Thursday with France's president over the fires.

French President Emmanuel Macron called the wildfires an international crisis and said the leaders of the Group of 7 nations should hold urgent discussions about them at their summit in France this weekend.

On Friday, his office stepped up the pressure, saying that Bolsonaro had lied in playing down concerns about climate change at the G20 summit in Japan in June and that, in this light, France would oppose the deal struck between the EU and the Mercosur countries: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Dublin would also vote against the deal unless Brazil acted to protect the rainforest. Varadkar said he was very concerned at the record levels of rainforest destruction, and that the Irish government would closely monitor Brazil’s environmental actions in the two years until the Mercosur deal was ratified.

“There is no way that Ireland will vote for the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement if Brazil does not honour its environmental commitments,” he said in a statement.

Germany also weighed in Friday, with a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel stating that the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest amount to an “acute emergency” that should be discussed by world leaders at this weekend’s G7 summit.

“The extent of the fires in the Amazon area is shocking and threatening and not only for Brazil and the other affected countries, but also for the whole world,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told journalists in Berlin.

‘Our house is burning’

The declarations from EU leaders follow mounting criticism throughout the week.

"Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest--the lungs which produces 20% of our planet's oxygen--is on fire," Macron tweeted Thursday.

Bolsonaro fired back with his own tweet: "I regret that Macron seeks to make personal political gains in an internal matter for Brazil and other Amazonian countries. The sensationalist tone he used does nothing to solve the problem."

Onyx Lorenzoni, the president's chief of staff, earlier in the day accused European countries of exaggerating environmental problems in Brazil in order to disrupt its commercial interests.

"There is deforestation in Brazil, yes, but not at the rate and level that they say," said Lorenzoni, according to the Brazilian news website globo.com.

His allegation came after Germany and Norway, citing Brazil's apparent lack of commitment to fighting deforestation, decided to withhold more than $60 million in funds earmarked for sustainability projects in Brazilian forests.

The debate came as Brazilian federal experts reported a record number of wildfires across the country this year, up 84 percent over the same period in 2018. Satellite images show smoke from the Amazon reaching across the Latin American continent to the Atlantic coast and Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted: "In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity. The Amazon must be protected."

Federal prosecutors in Brazil's Amazon region launched investigations of increasing deforestation, according to local media. Prosecutors said they plan to probe possible negligence by the national government in the enforcement of environmental codes.

Bolsonaro said there was a "very strong" indication that some non-governmental groups could be setting blazes in retaliation for losing state funds under his administration. He did not provide any evidence.

London-based Amnesty International blamed the Brazilian government for the fires, which have escalated international concern over the vast rainforest that is a major absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The rights group this year documented illegal land invasions and arson attacks near indigenous territories in the Amazon, including Rondonia state, where many fires are raging, said Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty's secretary general.

"Instead of spreading outrageous lies or denying the scale of deforestation taking place, we urge the president to take immediate action to halt the progress of these fires," Naidoo said.

The WWF conservation group also challenged Bolsonaro's allegations about NGOs, saying they divert "the focus of attention from what really matters: the well-being of nature and the people of the Amazon."

The ‘Fridays for Future’ movement of youth climate strikes, led by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, called on supporters around the world to protest outside Brazilian embassies and consulates Friday. “The lungs of our planet are turning into ashes, we cannot allow that to happen,” the group wrote on Facebook.

Brazil contains about 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, whose degradation could have severe consequences for global climate and rainfall. Bolsonaro, who has said he wants to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms, won office after channelling outrage over the corruption scandals of the former government.

Filipe Martins, an adviser to Bolsonaro, said on Twitter that the Brazilian government is committed to fighting illegal deforestation and that many other countries are causing environmental damage.

The Amazon will be saved by Brazil and not "the empty, hysterical and misleading rhetoric of the mainstream media, transnational bureaucrats and NGOs," Martins said.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)