Brazil’s government has said it will reject an offer of aid worth millions of dollars from G7 countries to help fight raging fires in the Amazon rainforest, claiming it has the blazes under control.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday during a G7 summit in Biarritz that the group – comprising the US, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Canada – would donate $22m to help tackle the blazes. Separately, Britain and Canada also pledged $12m and $11m in aid respectively.
Macron said the funds would be made available immediately and that France would also offer military support in the Amazon, where a record number of fires are burning through the Brazilian portion of the rainforest.
Brazilian officials gave no official reason for rejecting the group’s offer, and it was not immediately clear if Britain and Canada’s offers of aid had also been declined.
President Jair Bolsonaro had earlier accused Macron of treating Brazil as if it were a “colony”, however, and suggested foreign powers wanted control of the Amazon.
Onyx Lorenzoni,Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, suggested on Monday to Brazil’s Globo news website that “perhaps these resources are more relevant to reforesting Europe”.
“Macron cannot even avoid a predictable fire in a church that is part of the world’s heritage, and he wants to give us lessons for our country?” Lorenzoni added, referring to the fire in April that devastated Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral.
“What does he intend to teach our country?” he questioned.
Macron rues rejection
Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles had earlier told reporters they had welcomed the G7 funding to fight the fires that have swept across the Brazilian Amazon in record numbers this year and prompted the deployment of the army.
But after a meeting between Bolsonaro and his ministers, the Brazilian government changed course.
Macron on Tuesday shrugged off the rejection of the funds, saying the money was aimed at nine countries in the region and was a “sign of friendship”, not “aggressiveness”.
About 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest is in Brazil; although the vast forest also spans parts of Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru and Suriname.
The developments came as data released on Monday showed that hundreds of new fires have flared up in Brazil’s portion of the Amazon rainforest in recent days.
Some 1,113 new fires were ignited across Saturday and Sunday, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which monitors deforestation.
Despite the rise, Brazil’s Defence Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva claimed on Monday that the fires in the Amazon were under control.
“It has been exaggerated a little that the situation was out of control – it wasn’t,” he said.
Fires are common during Brazil’s dry season, but the numbers have surged this year.
INPE has spotted more than 77,000 wildfires in Brazil since the beginning of January, a record since the institute began keeping track in 2013 and a more than 80 percent bump on the number for the same period last year.
The fires are not limited to Brazil, with at least 10,000 square kilometers burning in Bolivia near its border with Paraguay and Brazil.
Environmentalists and non-governmental organisations have attributed the spike in Brazil’s blazes to farmers setting the forest alight to clear land for pasture and to loggers razing the forest for its wood, with INPE itself ruling out natural phenomena being responsible for the surge.
Critics say Bolsonaro’s weakening of Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, and push to open up the Amazon region for more commercial activity has emboldened such actors and created a climate of impunity for those felling the forest illegally.
Recent evidence appears to bear that out with preliminary data published by INPE showing deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon skyrocketed in June and July under Bolsonaro’s watch.
‘Cannot destroy everything’
The fires have provoked international outcry and sparked a diplomatic spat between Bolsonaro and Macron, who have locked horns repeatedly over the past week.
The French leader has called the blazes an “international crisis” and threatened to block a landmark European Union trade deal brokered with South American bloc Mercosur unless Brazil takes action to protect the rainforest.
The pact requires the Latin American giant to abide by the Paris climate accord, which Bolsonaro has threatened to leave and also aims to end illegal deforestation, including in the Brazilian Amazon.
Ireland has also threatened to obstruct ratification of the EU-Mercosur deal, 20 years in the making, over the crisis.
Bolsonaro, who initially questioned whether activist groups might have started the fires in an effort to damage the credibility of his government, on Monday accused the French leader of launching “ludicrous and unnecessary attacks” on the Amazon region.
Questioning the offer of G7 aid, Bolsonaro said: “Does anyone help anyone, if it is not a poor person, without something in return? Why do they have an eye on the Amazon? What have they wanted there for so long?”
Macron later rebutted those comments, saying the Amazon, while mostly Brazilian, was a world issue.
“We respect your sovereignty. It’s your country,” he said. “But we cannot allow you to destroy everything.”
The Amazon acts as an enormous carbon sink, storing up to an estimated 100 years worth of carbon emissions produced by humans, and is seen as a vital bulwark against global climate change.