Pope Francis calls for international action on Amazon wildfires

David Chazan
An image released by Greenpeace showing a patch of forest being cleared with fire in the municipality of Candeias do Jamari in Rondonia State, northwestern Brazil - AFP

Pope Francis called for a global commitment to fight the fires in the Amazon as Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said on Sunday that G7 leaders were nearing an agreement on how to tackle them.

The pontiff added his voice to growing international concern about the vast tracts of tropical forest ravaged by blazes in Brazil and neighbouring countries. 

“That lung of forests is vital for our planet," said the pope, who is from Brazil’s neighbour Argentina, in his weekly address before thousands of people in St. Peter's Square.

Mr Macron, hosting Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, at the summit of the G7 major industrialised nations in Biarritz, said a consensus was emerging about how to put out the fires and repair the damage.

Mr Macron has made the Amazon a priority of the summit, declaring it a global emergency and threatening to block a trade deal between the EU and the South American common market, Mercosur, until the fires are extinguished. 

The agenda prompted criticism from Mr Trump on Saturday that Mr Macron was focussing too much on “niche” issues designed to play well with French voters, such as climate change, income and gender equality and African development.

Mrs Merkel came out against blocking the Mercosur trade deal over the Amazon fires but said she was in favour of treating them as an emergency.

Undeterred, the French president told reporters on Sunday: “We are all agreed on helping those countries which have been hit by the fires as fast as possible.”

Mr Macron said Colombia had appealed to the international community to help.

“Our teams are making contact with all the Amazon countries so we can finalise some very concrete commitments involving technical resources and funding,” he added. 

Pointing out that France itself is “an Amazonian nation” because of its overseas department, French Guiana, he said: “The Amazon is so important … in terms of biodiversity, oxygen and the fight against climate change, that we must proceed with reforestation.”

Environmental campaigners pointed out, however, that Mr Macron announced no specific plan of action or timetable. French diplomatic sources suggested that more definite measures might be announced during the concluding session of the summit on Monday.

Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, who has accused Mr Macron of a “colonial mindset” in his approach to the Amazon fires, has ordered in the army to fight the blazes.

On Sunday two Hercules C-130 aircraft dropped thousands of litres of water in an attempt to douse the fires but hundreds of new blazes broke out. Thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in protest against the destruction of the rainforest.

Increased land clearances allowed by the far-Right Bolsonaro government to make way for crops or grazing has exacerbated the region’s worst fires in years, experts say.

Even with international action, French firefighters experienced in putting out smaller blazes in the south of France pointed out that it might be impossible to extinguish the huge Amazon fires without rain.

Eric Flores, fire chief of the southern Hérault region, suggested that the Brazilian army could limit the spread of the blazes by lighting controlled fires “to create barriers of deforested areas” without vegetation.