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Brazil faces global backlash over Amazon fires

Its environmental policies place a US$1.2 billion conservation initiative for the Amazon and an EU trade deal in jeopardy

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Climate change activists demonstrating outside the Brazilian embassy in London on Friday, urging President Jair Bolsonaro to halt the fires in the Amazon rainforest. Protests were also planned for other European cities.

Rio De Janeiro

AS dozens of fires scorched large swathes of the Amazon, the Brazilian government struggled to contain growing global outrage over its environmental policies, which have paved the way for runaway deforestation of the world's largest rainforest.

The fires, many intentionally set, are spreading as Germany and Norway appear to be on the brink of shutting down a US$1.2 billion conservation initiative for the Amazon.

Concern over the environmental policies of President Jair Bolsonaro, which have prioritised the interests of industries that want greater access to protected lands, has also put in jeopardy a trade agreement the European Union and a handful of South American nations struck in June, following decades of negotiations.

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"The ongoing forest fires in Brazil are deeply worrying," the European Commission said in a statement on Thursday. "Forests are our lungs and life support systems." Photos of the fires have been shared by NASA, politicians and celebrities this week, setting off a call on social media to #PrayForAmazon.

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio called on his nearly 34 million Instagram followers to become more environmentally conscious in a post warning that "the lungs of the Earth are in flames". The Bolsonaro administration has reacted with indignation to the outrage, claiming without presenting any evidence that nongovernmental organisations could have started the fires to undermine the far-right president.

In the northern state of Rondônia, which has been among the most affected by the fires, indigenous leaders described watching wild animals dashing out of areas of the forest as the flames approached.

"We saw wild pigs, tapirs, armadillos, anteaters, snakes in larger numbers than we are used to," said Adriano Karipuna, a leader in the Karipuna indigenous community, whose territory has been affected by fires. "We saw the forest covered in smoke, and the sky darkened. Our eyes became red due to the smoke."

Karipuna said loggers are striding into protected areas, emboldened by Mr Bolsonaro's views that the legal protections granted to indigenous lands are an unreasonable impediment to profiting from the Amazon's resources.

"He empowered them, he told them to invade," Karipuna said in a phone interview.

Senior government officials in Brazil took aim on Thursday at international news coverage and criticism from Western governments, calling their characterisation of the fires intentionally misleading.

"There's a reason why Brazil has the best environmental credentials and the best preserved forests," Filipe Martins, a foreign policy adviser to Mr Bolsonaro, wrote in a series of messages on Twitter. "We know how to protect and take care of what is ours."

He added: "If you are wondering who is going to save the Amazon, here's a very straightforward answer for you: It's not the empty, hysterical and misleading rhetoric of the mainstream media, transnational bureaucrats and NGOs."

Brazil has strict environmental laws and regulations, but they are often violated with impunity. The vast majority of fines for breaking environmental laws go unpaid with little or no consequences.

Forest fires are common in Brazil during this time of the year, which tends to be cooler and drier. But the number now raging in the Amazon is unusually high.

Data released by Brazil's National Institute for Space Research shows that from January to July, fires had consumed 4.6 million acres of the Brazilian Amazon, a 62 per cent increase compared to last year.

Joênia Wapichana, a federal lawmaker from the northern state of Roraima, was among a group of members of Congress who called Thursday for the impeachment of Mr Bolsonaro's environment minister, Ricardo Salles.

"The government has a duty to come up with an emergency plan for the Amazon," said Ms Wapichana, the first indigenous woman elected to Congress. "There is no response from the government. The government is acting in a defensive and desperate manner."

In recent months, as the Bolsonaro administration has questioned the usefulness of the Amazon Fund bankrolled by German and Norwegian taxpayers, leaders in those countries have come to consider abandoning it.

The fund was started in 2008, when Brazil was making strides in curbing deforestation through an ambitious set of policies that included aggressive law enforcement and conservation efforts.

"The policies of the Brazilian government on the Amazon region call into question whether they are still pursuing the goal of consistently reducing deforestation rates," Germany's Foreign Ministry said in a statement this month. "We need certainty on that account before we can continue project cooperation."

The trade deal between the European Union and Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay still needs to be ratified by the European Parliament, and it is meeting resistance from environmental activists who are pressing lawmakers on the issue.

President Emmanuel Macron of France posted a tweet on Thursday calling the fires "an international crisis" and called for the "emergency" to be discussed at this weekend's Group of 7 summit he is hosting. Mr Bolsonaro responded with his own post on Twitter, writing that Mr Macron's position was "sensationalist" and that the fires in the Amazon were an internal issue for Brazilians to resolve. The idea of discussing the problem at the G7 was "colonialist".

Waldez Góes, governor of the northern state of Amapá, is among a group of governors who are calling on European leaders to continue bankrolling conservation initiatives, bypassing the federal government. Mr Góes said he feared that continued degradation of the Amazon would spark a boycott of Brazilian products.

"We live in a country that produces food," he said. "The price could be very high for producers and for the nation." Jerônimo Goergen, a federal lawmaker from the ruralist caucus, which champions industries seeking broader access to the Amazon, said he was deeply worried about Brazil's reputation abroad as its approach to the environment has come under harsh scrutiny. "This creates a terrible image for Brazil," he said. "The agricultural sector stands to suffer the most based on the way this debate is being framed."

Meanwhile, Brazilian government officials fought back. Environment Minister Mr Salles announced the creation of an Amazon task force in an interview with local news website UOL, while President Jair Bolsonaro's senior foreign policy adviser tweeted a long English language thread defending Brazil's record on Amazon deforestation and attacking media coverage. House Speaker Rodrigo Maia said congress will set up a panel to study the fires.

"In terms of environmental management we're witnessing a disaster," Jairo Nicolau, a political science professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said. "It's not about just a different policy. We're seeing total disorganisation in an area in which there was a culture of continuity from one government to the next."

Mr Salles' decision to create an Amazon task force, comprising police, armed forces, indigenous, farming and mining groups represents a change in tack from the confrontational attitude he has taken to previous criticism of environmental policy. The announcement came the same day as a Brazilian Senator asked the Supreme Court to remove him from his position for failing to fulfil his duties.

Mr Maia was clear in explaining the reasons behind his decision to establish a congressional committee to investigate the fires. "It is important to keep our agribusiness exports strong and to preserve the environment," he wrote.

Senior figures in Brazil's agricultural sector have warned the president of the potential economic repercussions of his policies, though so far Mr Bolsonaro himself has shown little sign of paying heed.

In comments to reporters on Thursday Mr Bolsonaro said that it would be the media's fault if Brazilian agriculture suffered commercial barriers as a result of the outcry. He also appeared to shrug off suggestions of containing the blaze. "The Amazon is bigger than Europe. How are you going to fight a criminal fire in such an area?" he said. NYTIMES/BLOOMBERG