Amazon fires: Brazilian president sends army to tackle blaze after Emmanuel Macron moves to block EU-South America trade deal

Henry Samuel
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, waves while standing with Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's president, at the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. - Bloomberg

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro authorized the deployment of armed forces to help fight fires raging in the Amazon and crack down on criminal activities in the region on Friday.

The decree applies to indigenous territories, conservation areas as well as other regions in the Brazilian states spanning the world's largest rainforest.

He 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.

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

It came after Donald Trump offered to help Brazil as it grapples with thousands of wildfires burning in the Amazon.

The US president said he had spoken with Mr Bolsonaro and stated that the countries' prospects for trade are "perhaps stronger than ever."

"I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon Rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!" Mr Trump tweeted.

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, waves while standing with Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's president, at the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Credit:  Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Earlier on Friday, Emmanuel Macron spearheaded a European charge against Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro as a war of words intensified over raging fires in the Amazon basin ahead of this weekend’s G7 summit in Biarritz.

France joined forces with Ireland in threatening to block a trade deal with South America unless Brazil takes action to stop vast tracts of the Amazonian rainforest from burning.

The threat followed a clash between Mr Bolsonaro, a far-Right climate sceptic, and Mr Macron, whom the Brailian leader accused of having a “colonialist mentality” for dubbing the fires an “international crisis” and requesting the Amazon be added to the G7 agenda.

”Our house is burning. Literally,” tweeted the French leader.

Mr Macron, said Mr Bolsonaro, was bent on sensationalism and seeking "personal political gains in an internal matter for Brazil and other Amazonian countries".

Upping the ante, the French premier on Friday accused his Brazilian counterpart of having “lied” about his environmental commitments at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan in June.

"The decisions and statements from Brazil these recent weeks show clearly that President Bolsonaro has decided to not respect his commitments on the climate, nor to involve himself on the issue of biodiversity," read a presidential statement.

As a consequence, France now opposes an EU trade deal "in its current state" with the Mercosur bloc of South American nations that includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Two decades in the making, the treaty is yet to be ratified. Brazil contains about 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest, seen as the world’s “lungs” and a crucial carbon sink.

Environmental experts say the fires are linked to accelerating deforestation in the Amazon region, which in July quadrupled compared to the same month in 2018, according to data from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research.

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State Credit: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino/File Photo

Mr Bolsonaro has denied his policies are to blame, pointing the finger at drought and even environmental groups and NGOs - a baseless claim Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, branded “Orwellian”.

Earlier, Mr Varadkar said the Irish government would also oppose the treaty. "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.

Ireland and France would need other EU states to help form a blocking minority if they want to sink the deal reached late June.

Angela Merkel called the fires “shocking and threatening” for the “whole world”. Along with Norway, Germany has blocked donations to the Brazilian government’s Amazon fund. But a government spokesperson signalled on Friday that it would not be joining in the push against the trade pact, saying that was "not the right response".

This Aug 20 satellite image provided by Nasa shows the fires Credit: AP

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "I passionately share the view of Emmanuel Macron, and one of the things I am going to be raising at the G7 is the horrific loss of habitats and species around the world.”

French officials said talks were underway to take “concrete initiatives on the Amazon as part of the G7”.

However, all eyes will be on Donald Trump, with whom Mr Macron claims to have a close working relationship but who he has to date failed to sway on a range of issues from Iran and trade to the climate.

A staunch climate sceptic himself having pulled out of the Paris accords, the US president views Mr Bolsonaro as a valuable regional ally who he may choose to defend against European attacks on Brazilian “sovereignty”.

Where there's smoke: the city of Porto Velho, state capital of Rondonia, in the upper Amazon River basin, on Aug 16 Credit: Rex

Even so, pressure was piling up on the Brazilian president on the domestic front as demonstrations were held in dozens of cities around his country. Others were also staged in Paris and London.

Brazil's agribusiness lobby, which wields significant influence within Congress, also expressed concerns over a drop in exports due to a potential boycott of Brazilian products.

In an apparent bid to reduce tensions, Mr Bolsonaro mooted the idea of deploying the army to help fight the fires, some 700 of which were ignited between Wednesday and Thursday alone, according to the National Institute for Space Research.