Jair Bolsonaro claims 'profound love' for Amazon rainforest as criticism intensifies

Tom Phillips Latin America correspondent
Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has professed to feeling “profound love and respect” for the Amazon as fires continued to rage in the world’s biggest tropical rainforest and criticism of his environmental policies intensified.

In a televised address to the nation – met with pot-banging protests in several Brazilian cities – Bolsonaro said he was “not content” with the situation in the Amazon and was taking “firm action” to resolve it by deploying troops to the region.

But the rightwing populist played down both the significance of the forest fires that have mushroomed into a major political and environmental crisis – as well as his administration’s responsibility for it.

Related: G7 leaders to hold emergency talks over Amazon wildfires crisis

“Forest fires exist in the whole world and this cannot serve as a pretext for possible international sanctions,” Bolsonaro said in his brief, scripted address.

Forest fires are an annual occurrence in the Amazon region – about 60% of which lies in Brazil. But experts and campaigners blame the scale of this year’s blaze on the green light they believe Bolsonaro has given to those who wish to destroy the rainforest.

Bolsonaro hit back at such criticism in his Friday night address, claiming the spreading of “disinformation” – inside or outside Brazil – would do nothing to solve the Amazon crisis.

“Brazil is an example of sustainability,” he claimed, as the Amazon state of Acre became the latest to declare a state of emergency because of the wildfires. “It is our duty to protect the forest. We are aware of this and we are taking action to fight illegal deforestation and any other criminal activities that put our Amazon at risk,” Bolsonaro added.

“We are a government that shows zero tolerance to crime and it will not be different when it comes to the environment.”

Marina Silva, Brazil’s former environment minister, told the Guardian it would take more than propaganda and “words in the wind” to solve the Amazonian “environmental emergency” caused by Bolsonaro’s policies.

Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro. Photograph: Adriano Machado/Reuters

“Bolsonaro won the election with his anti-environment, anti-human rights and anti-indigenous discourse and on taking office he has transformed these words into deeds,” said Silva, who oversaw a significant reduction in deforestation while minister from 2003 until 2008. “These policies cannot be allowed to prosper.”

Amid a growing chorus of international criticism, Donald Trump came to Bolsonaro’s defense on Friday. “I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon Rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!” the US president tweeted.

“Our future Trade prospects are very exciting and our relationship is strong, perhaps stronger than ever before,” Trump said.

“Hugs from Brazil!” Bolsonaro’s son Carlos tweeted in response.

Bolsonaro tweeted that he had discussed “a big trade negotiation” with Trump and that the US president “had also offered to help us protect Amazonia and fight the fires, if we wish, as well as to work together on environmental policies that respect the sovereignty of nations.”