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As Amazon fires become global crisis, Brazil’s president reverses course

by Ernesto Londono, New York Times |

RIO DE JANEIRO – As an ecological disaster in the Amazon escalated into a global political crisis, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, took the rare step Friday of mobilizing the armed forces to help contain blazes of a scale not seen in nearly a decade.

The sudden reversal, after days of dismissing growing concern over hundreds of fires raging across the Amazon, came as international outrage grew over the rising deforestation in the world’s largest tropical rain forest. European leaders threatened to cancel a major trade deal, protesters staged demonstrations outside Brazilian embassies and calls for a boycott of Brazilian products snowballed on social media.

As a chorus of condemnation intensified, Brazil braced for the prospect of punitive measures that could severely damage an economy that is already sputtering after a brutal recession and the country’s far-right populist president faced a withering reckoning.

He said Friday that he was planning to send the military to enforce environmental laws and to help contain the fires starting Saturday.

In a televised address Friday night, he said the government would take a “zero tolerance” approach to environmental crimes, and that Brazilians in the Amazon region must be provided with broader opportunities to make a decent living.

“I have a profound love and respect for the Amazon,” he said in a rare scripted message. “Protecting the rain forest is our duty.”

He provided no details about what assets the military would bring to bear in areas where fires are spreading.

But it was unlikely that his plan could address the underlying crisis without a fundamental shift in his environmental policies, which have emboldened miners, loggers and farmers to strip and burn protected areas with a sense of impunity.

Since the nationalist former army captain took office in January, deforestation has increased sharply across Brazil, including in indigenous territories. Mr. Bolsonaro has pledged to make it easier for industries to gain access to protected areas, arguing that native communities are in control of unreasonably vast areas that contain enormous wealth.

Brazil’s stretch of the Amazon lost more than 1,330 square miles of forest cover during the first seven months of the year, a 39 percent increase over the same period last year.

Experts say that spike appears to be the main driver of the fires in the Amazon this year.

The number of fires in the Amazon so far this year, 40,341, is the highest since 2010, and roughly 35 percent higher than the average for the first eight months of the year, according to Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research agency, which tracks deforestation and forest fires using satellite images.

Most of the fires are set intentionally to clear land for agriculture and cattle grazing. But the fire season got off to an early start this year, and blazes set along the edges of the rain forest are unusually potent, raising the risk that some will spread beyond the intended areas, according to Doug Morton, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who tracks deforestation and fires in the Amazon.

“This is a critical time,” he said in an interview. “Part of the international attention to what is going on comes from the fact that Brazil has been such a pioneer and leader on environmental protection and it has shown the world it’s possible to have economic development while protecting the rain forest.”

That hard-earned reputation has been crumbling in the Bolsonaro era.

Global outrage over the fires has spurred calls to boycott Brazilian products and led European leaders to threaten to walk away from a trade agreement that the European Union struck with Brazil and a handful of neighboring countries in June.

In what has become an unusually nasty exchange among leaders of major democracies, President Emmanuel Macron of France went so far as to accuse Mr. Bolsonaro of lying about being committed to fighting climate change and protecting the Amazon. “Our house is burning. Literally.” Mr. Macron wrote on Twitter Thursday.

Mr. Macron said Friday that he would try to kill a major trade deal between Europe and South America that has been years in the making. He and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said that the Amazon fires should be added to the agenda of the Group of 7 summit meeting this weekend.

Mr. Bolsonaro fired back that Mr. Macron was the liar, chiding him for releasing “photos from the past century” to generate “hatred against Brazil.” As for the Group of 7, he told Mr. Macron and Ms. Merkel to mind their own business.

To be fair, Mr. Bolsonaro has a point: the fiery images zooming across social media that have focused world attention on a real crisis have not always been what they seem.

The Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance, shared a dramatic view of a glowing strip of flames and smoke with his 120 million Facebook followers and nearly 80 million Twitter followers, but the photo was taken in 2013, far from the Amazon.

The photo Mr. Macron tweeted, also shared by Leonardo DiCaprio and the singer Ricky Martin, came from a stock photo catalog and is credited to a photographer who died in 2003.

Brazil’s minister of agriculture, Tereza Cristina Corrêa da Costa Dias, pushed back, telling reporters Friday that many observers were conflating slash-and-burn fires regularly used to clear and renourish farmland with out-of-control forest fires.

Foreign governments that threaten to punish Brazil on trade or exports, she said, “first need to know what is happening in Brazil before taking any measure.” She called on them to “lower the temperature,” adding that “Brazil understands the importance of the Amazon.”

“In California fires kill people and burn houses,” she said, arguing that Brazil is facing undue criticism.

President Trump, who supports Mr. Bolsonaro and has not criticized his environmental policies, said Friday that he had spoken to Mr. Bolsonaro and offered to provide assistance in containing the fires.

“I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon Rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!” Mr. Trump wrote in a tweet.

There were several years in the early 2000s that the Amazon had more fires than those so far this year. But the rate of deforestation then prompted Brazil to adopt an ambitious set of policies to preserve the Amazon and other environmentally sensitive areas.

Many of those protections have eroded on Mr. Bolsonaro’s watch.

Marina Silva, who served as minister of the environment between 2003 and 2008 and was lauded for curbing deforestation, faulted the Bolsonaro government for encouraging people to violate environmental laws by setting up shop in protected areas.

“Today, because of Bolsonaro, all our work is turning into ashes,” she said in a phone interview Friday evening, lamenting that the president’s approach on the environment has turned Brazilians into “pariahs.”

Some local officials also expressed alarm. In the northern state of Acre, the governor declared a state of emergency and ordered the evacuation of areas that could become engulfed by fires.

“We have alarming data on air quality, so health officials have increased the number of doctors available to treat our people,” Israel Milani, the state’s top environmental official, said in an interview.

In the state of Rondônia, firefighters said they were in triage mode.

“It’s impossible to be everywhere at the same time,” said Coronel Demargli Farias, the state’s chief of firefighters. “Even if we had 50,000 men.”

As Mr. Bolsonaro promised Friday to start to rein in the fires, many of Brazil’s embassies were mobbed by protesters. In Buenos Aires, hundreds of demonstrators, most of them young, chanted “out Bolsonaro!” to the beat of drums.

Like many of the protesters, Magalí Moglia, a 22-year-old college student, had a sense of existential urgency.

“I feel a lot of pain and anguish with everything that is going on,” she said, “realizing that I am part of the species that is killing the other species.”