President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday authorized the deployment of Brazil’s armed forces to help combat fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, as a growing global outcry over the blazes sparks protests and threatens a huge trade deal.
Plumes of thick smoke rose into the sky above dense forest in the northwestern state of Rondonia, where bright orange flames from various fires were visible for kilometers, an AFP photographer reported.
The fires in the world’s largest rainforest have sparked street protests around the planet and ignited a war of words between Bolsonaro and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, who has described the wildfires as an “international crisis” and vowed to block a trade agreement between the European Union and South American countries.
The latest official figures show 76,720 forest fires were recorded in Brazil so far this year -- the highest number for any year since 2013 -- which experts blame on accelerating deforestation as land is cleared during the months-long dry season to make way for crops or grazing.
More than half are in the Amazon.
After a late-night crisis meeting with members of his cabinet, Bolsonaro on Friday issued a decree permitting the deployment of armed forces to help extinguish fires and crack down on criminal activities in the region.
Bolsonaro’s decision came as demonstrations are held around the world over the fires in the Amazon forest, a region considered the “lungs of the planet” and seen as crucial to keeping climate change in check.
In an escalating public row over the blazes, Macron on Friday accused Bolsonaro of lying to him on Brazil’s stance on climate change.
France will now block a trade deal between the European Union and the South American trade bloc Mercosur, which includes Brazil, a French presidential official said.
Ireland also threatened to block the deal, and Finland said it would propose to EU countries that they stop importing Brazilian beef.
Bolsonaro insisted that the fires should not be used as an excuse to punish Brazil.
“There are forest fires all over the world, and this cannot be used as a pretext for possible international sanctions,” Bolsonaro said in brief remarks on television Friday evening.
Environmental specialists say the fires have accompanied a rapid rate of deforestation in the Amazon region, which in July quadrupled compared to the same month in 2018, according to INPE data, which Bolsonaro previously described as lies and prompted the sacking of the agency’s head.
Bolsonaro instead attributes the blazes to increased drought, and accuses environmental groups and NGOs of whipping up an “environmental psychosis” to harm Brazil’s economic interests.
Earlier in the week, Bolsonaro accused NGOs of starting the fires.
Neighboring Paraguay and Bolivia are also battling separate wildfires that have devastated large areas of their rainforests.
The Bolivian government on Friday took delivery of a “supertanker” aircraft to help extinguish fires that have destroyed around 7,770 square kilometers of the eastern province of Santa Cruz for the past month.