Brazilian President Bolsonaro prepares to send army to contain Amazon fires

Aerial picture showing smoke from a two-kilometre-long stretch of fire billowing from the Amazon rainforest about 65 km from Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia, in northern Brazil, on August 23, 2019. - Bolsonaro said Friday he is considering deploying the army to help combat fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, after news about the fires have sparked protests around the world. 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. More than half are in the Amazon. (Photo by Carl DE SOUZA / AFP) (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Under increasing international pressure to contain record numbers of fires in the Amazon, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said Friday he might send the military to battle the massive blazes.

“That’s the plan,” said Bolsonaro. He did not say when the armed forces would get involved but suggested that action could be imminent.

Bolsonaro has previously described rainforest protections as an obstacle to economic development, sparring with critics who note that the Amazon produces vast amounts of oxygen and is considered crucial in efforts to contain global warming.

Small numbers of demonstrators gathered outside Brazilian diplomatic missions in Paris, London and Geneva to urge Brazil to do more to fight the fires.

Neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay have also struggled to contain fires that swept through woods and fields and, in many cases, got out of control in high winds after being set by residents clearing land for farming. About 7,500 square kilometers (2,900 square miles) of land has been affected in Bolivia, according to Defense Minister Javier Zavaleta.

On Friday, a B747-400 SuperTanker arrived in Bolivia to help with the fire-fighting effort. The U.S.-based aircraft can carry nearly 76,000 liters (20,000 gallons) of retardant, a substance used to stop fires.

Some 370 square kilometers (140 square miles) have burned in northern Paraguay, near the borders with Brazil and Bolivia, said Joaquín Roa, a Paraguayan state emergency official. He said the situation has stabilized.

In escalating tension over the fires, France accused Bolsonaro of having lied to French leader Emmanuel Macron and threatened to block a European Union trade deal with several South American states, including Brazil. Ireland joined in the threat.

The specter of possible economic repercussions for Brazil and its South American neighbors show how the Amazon is becoming a battleground between Bolsonaro and Western governments alarmed that vast swathes of the region are going up in smoke on his watch.

Ahead of a Group of Seven summit in France this weekend, Macron’s office issued a statement questioning Bolsonaro’s trustworthiness.

Brazilian statements and decisions indicate Bolsonaro “has decided to not respect his commitments on the climate, nor to involve himself on the issue of biodiversity,” Macron’s statement said.

It added that 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.

Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne also expressed concern, saying he is “truly worried about the attitude Brazil seems to have adopted right now regarding” fires in the Amazon.

“Brazilian rainforests are vital for the world’s climate” and Brazil should do whatever it can to stop the blazes, said Rinne, whose country holds the European Union’s rotating presidency.

Bolsonaro has accused Macron of politicizing the issue, and his government said European countries are exaggerating Brazil’s environmental problems in order to disrupt its commercial interests. Bolsonaro has said he wants to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms.

Even so, Brazilian state experts have reported a record of nearly 77,000 wildfires across the country so far this year, up 85% over the same period in 2018. Brazil contains about 60% of the Amazon rainforest, whose degradation could have severe consequences for global climate and rainfall.

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