JACUNDA NATIONAL FOREST, Brazil — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Tuesday said Brazil will only accept an offer of international aid to fight Amazon fires if French leader Emmanuel Macron retracts comments that Bolsonaro finds offensive.
Bolsonaro said Macron had called him a liar, and he accused the French president of questioning Brazil’s sovereignty amid tensions over fires sweeping the Amazon region.
Macron has to retract some of his comments “and then we can speak,” Bolsonaro said.
He spoke a day after the Group of Seven nations pledged $20 million to help fight the flames in the Amazon and protect the rainforest, in addition to a separate $12 million from Britain and $11 million from Canada.
Macron, who has questioned Bolsonaro’s trustworthiness and commitment to protecting biodiversity, has shrugged off the snub from the Brazilian president.
The French leader said in a speech Tuesday that Bolsonaro’s interpretation is a “mistake.”
He said the money isn’t just aimed at Brazil but at nine countries in the Amazon region, including Colombia and Bolivia. France too considers itself an Amazon country via its overseas region of French Guiana.
Macron and Bolsonaro have been feuding over social media in recent days.
Equipped with hoses connected to rubber backpacks, Brazilian firefighters in the Amazon on Monday raced in a truck along dirt roads toward plumes of smoke after a spotter in a military helicopter directed them to a fast-spreading fire.
A landowner opened the gate of a barbed-wire fence and the firefighters set to work, dousing a fire they believed was intentionally set to prepare land for crops or pasture. When their water supply ran out, they made a fire break, clearing brush with machetes and chainsaws to starve the blaze of its fuel.
The smoke-shrouded scene near the lush Jacunda national forest in the Amazonian state of Rondonia, witnessed by an Associated Press team, showed the enormous scale of the challenge ahead: putting out a multitude of blazes and safeguarding — in the long term — a vast region described by world leaders as critical to the health of the planet.
The country’s National Space Research Institute, which monitors deforestation, has recorded that the number of fires has risen by 85% to more than 77,000 in the last year, a record since the institute began keeping track in 2013. About half of the fires have been in the Amazon region, with most of those just in the past month.
The international pledges came even though Bolsonaro has accused rich countries of treating the region like a “colony” and suggested the West is angling to exploit Brazil’s natural resources.
But the funds, which are widely seen as critical support, are still a relatively meager amount for dealing with an environmental crisis that threatens what Macron has called “the lungs of the planet.”
The AP team drove for hours at a stretch outside the Rondonia capital of Porto Velho without seeing any major fires, suggesting that many had been extinguished or burned themselves out since rapidly spreading in recent weeks. Many fires were set in already deforested areas to clear land for farming and livestock.
Still, smoke billowed from charred fields and scrub, shrouding the sky. The airport in Porto Velho closed for more than an hour on Monday morning because of poor visibility caused by the haze.
Under international pressure to act, Bolsonaro said he might visit the Amazon region this week to check on firefighting efforts and would make 44,000 troops available to fight the blazes. However, the military presence in the area seemed scarce Monday, with only a few soldiers seen patrolling roads and lending a hand.
At dawn, the blazing sun was hidden under thick smoke that blanketed the horizon like fog. Trucks carrying fresh timber sped through a road that cut through lands where heaps of ash were piled around charred logs.
Some residents seemed torn between knowing the fires were devastating the environment around them, and needing to extract the Amazon’s rich natural resources to make a living.
“We have to preserve the land. The government has to help small farmers more, prioritize and take care of the large reserves, where people do most of the illegal things,” said Willian Sabara Dos Santos, a farm manager. Behind him, a Brazilian flag on a pole fluttered in the wind next to a statue of a bull that he said was a replica of the “Charging Bull” sculpture on New York’s Wall Street.
In a nearby village, Darcy Rodrigo De Souza walked barefoot into a shop where people drank coffee and ate pao de queijo, Brazilian cheese bread, on a street named “New Progress.”
“We have many problems with the fires. But we also depend on the wood for our economy. If it wasn’t for that, there would be nothing,” said De Souza, who wore a straw hat. “It’s true that the Amazon has to be protected, but this president is going to protect it. The Americans want us to protect Brazil. But why don’t they protect their stuff?”
About 60% of the Amazon region is in Brazil, although the vast forest also spans parts of Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru and Suriname. The Amazon’s rainforests are a major absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and described by environmentalists as a critical defense against climate change.
On Monday, army Maj. Fabio da Paixão Pinheiro said officials have determined that the fires around Porto Velho have decreased as a result of rain over the last couple of days.
But near the Jacunda national forest, thunder boomed as firefighters worked to suffocate flames that continued to burn into the evening.
One fireman prayed for rain as he put on a protective mask. All around him, the heavy smell of burning wood permeated the air, making it hard to breathe.