The burning of the Amazon shot to the top of the agenda of this week’s meeting of the world’s wealthiest nations thanks to its host, French President Emmanuel Macron, who said the fires in the planet’s “lungs” were an international crisis. But, as a personal feud developed between Macron and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil angrily suggested the G-7 had a colonialist mentality and was interfering with Brazil’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, the Amazon burns on, producing thick smoke that can be seen from space and adding to world air pollution.
The number of fires in the Amazon this year has been one of the highest on record, threatening the vast ecosystem, spreading thick smoke that looks like clouds from space, and worsening Brazil’s air quality. Wildfires are not uncommon during the dry season, and many are deliberately started by farmers who want to clear existing farmland. However, Brazil’s satellite monitoring agency has also reported a sharp increase in deforestation in the year to June, which scientists say is fuelling the fires.
Most of the Amazon is in Brazil, and some blame this year’s surge in fires on its far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of weakening environmental protections and encouraging deforestation. Before he became president in January, Bolsonaro said he would open up more land in the Amazon for business and agricultural development to boost Brazil’s economy.
Pressure has gradually mounted on Bolsonaro. Thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Internationally, Pope Francis told crowds in the Vatican City that that green "lung of forest is vital for our planet,” and celebrities like environmentalist actor Leonardo DiCaprio have posted about the fires.
Last week, French President Macron accused Bolsonaro of lying over a pledge to help combat climate change. Macron also threatened to veto a free trade agreement between the Mercosur states of South America and the European Union that was agreed to in June after more than 20 years of negotiations. France has long been a reluctant country to the deal because it wanted to protect its agricultural industry from Argentinian and Brazilian competition.
Macron then put the fires in the world’s largest tropical rainforest on the G-7 agenda, calling it “an international crisis."
Bolsonaro hit back at the French president by insulting his wife on Twitter. In rebuke, Macron called Bolsonaro a disgrace to Brazilians. Brazil’s president said Macron was treating the region like a colony.
On Monday, the leaders of the seven wealthiest and most advanced nations meeting in Biarritz, southwest France, pledged $20 million to fight the fires, saying it was vital to protect the Amazon rainforests for the good of the world. The G-7 nations are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
But the Brazilian government responded that this offer reflected the hypocrisy of the industrialized nations. The money is “perhaps more relevant to reforesting Europe,” Bolsonaro’s chief of staff reportedly said.
“Brazil is a democratic, free nation that has never had colonialist and imperialist practices, as perhaps is the objective of the Frenchman Macron,” said Onyx Lorenzoni.
In a reference to a fire that seriously damaged Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral in April, Lorenzoni added: “Macron can’t even prevent a foreseeable fire in a church that is a World Heritage Site, and he wants to teach our country what?”
On Tuesday, Bolsonaro said Brazil will only accept the G-7 offer of aid if Macron retracted offensive comments against him.
Separately, the U.K. has pledged US$12 million and Canada US$11 million to help fight the fires.
Greenpeace, while accusing Bolsonaro’s government of pulling to pieces Brazil’s environmental policy, has also blamed the G-7 nations themselves.
“France and other developed countries are responsible for the dire Amazon situation through their economies and contribution to imported deforestation, fueled by ill-designed public policies in sectors like agriculture, timber and bio-energies,” Greenpeace France Executive Director Jean-François Julliard said in a statement ahead of the summit.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro continues to enjoy the support of U.S. President Donald Trump, who was the only G-7 leader not to attend their meeting on climate change.
“He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil,” Trump tweeted.