by Carlos Fabal, with Allison Jackson in Rio de Janeiro
Hundreds of new fires are raging in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, official data showed Saturday, as thousands of troops were made available to help fight the worst blazes in years following a global outcry.
Multiple fires billowing huge plumes of smoke into the air were seen across a vast area of the northwestern state of Rondonia on Friday when AFP journalists flew over the area.
Several residents in the capital, Porto Velho, told AFP on Saturday that what appeared to be light clouds hanging over the city of half a million people, was actually smoke from the blazes that had scorched swaths of land and left tree trunks smoldering on the ground.
“I’m very worried because of the environment and health,” Delmara Conceicao Silva told AFP.
“I have a daughter with respiratory problems and she suffers more because of the fires.”
The fires in the world’s largest rainforest have triggered a global uproar, and are a major topic of concern at the G7 meeting in Biarritz in southern France.
Official figures show 78,383 forest fires have been recorded in Brazil this year, the highest number of any year since 2013. Experts say the clearing of land during the monthslong dry season to make way for crops or grazing, has aggravated the problem.
More than half of the fires are in the massive Amazon basin, where more than 20 million people live. Some 1,663 new fires were ignited between Thursday and Friday, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
The new data came a day after Bolsonaro authorized deployment of the military to fight the fires and crack down on criminal activity.
Seven states, including Rondonia, have requested the army’s help in the Amazon, where more than 43,000 troops are based and available to combat fires, officials said. Firefighters and planes are also being deployed.
Six aircraft, including two Hercules C-130s equipped to carry 12,000 liters (3,170 gallons) of water each, have been sent to Rondonia to fight the fires. They are expected to be joined by 30 firefighters on Sunday.
“Any help is welcome in respect to the fires,” Brazil’s Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva told reporters on Saturday.
The blazes have stirred outrage globally, with thousands of people protesting in Brazil and Europe on Friday. More demonstrations are planned in Brazil on Sunday.
Earlier this week, Bolsonaro, whose anti-environment rhetoric since coming to power in January has been blamed for harming the Amazon and indigenous tribes, accused non-governmental organizations of deliberately starting the fires after their funding was cut.
The growing crisis threatens to torpedo a blockbuster trade deal between the European Union and South American countries, including Brazil, that took 20 years to negotiate.
EU Council president Donald Tusk told reporters at the G7 on Saturday that it was hard to imagine European countries ratifying a trade pact with the Mercosur bloc as long as Brazil fails to curb the fires ravaging the Amazon, which is known as the “lungs of the planet” because of its crucial role in mitigating climate change.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has taken the lead in pressing his Brazilian counterpart over the fires, had earlier accused Bolsonaro of lying to him about Brazil’s stance on climate change.
In an escalating war of words between the two leaders, Bolsonaro denounced what he calls Macron’s “colonialist mentality.”
Environmental specialists say the fires are coming amid increasing deforestation in the Amazon region, which in July took place at a rate four times that of the same month in 2018, according to data from INPE.
Bolsonaro has previously attacked the institute, describing its data as lies and engineering the sacking of its head.
On Friday, he insisted that the fires should not be used as an excuse to punish Brazil.
“There are forest fires all over the world, and this cannot be used as a pretext for possible international sanctions,” Bolsonaro said.
Brazil’s powerful agriculture sector — which strongly supports Bolsonaro — has expressed concerns over the president’s rhetoric, fearing boycotts of their products in key markets.
In an editorial Saturday, the respected Folha de S.Paulo newspaper warned that Bolsonaro’s “bravado” had worsened the crisis caused by accelerating deforestation.
“The damage to (Brazil’s) image is done, and it could have important trade repercussions,” it said.
“Nationalistic bravado will not win the game this time.”
© Agence France-Presse