President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil decried environmentalist panic over fires sprawling over the Amazon Rainforest on Tuesday, noting, “I would like there to be fewer fires, of course, but they are under the average of the past few years.”
Bolsonaro made the remark at an emergency meeting on the fires, which have garnered international attention after French President Emmanuel Macron criticized Bolsonaro’s handling of the situation. He held the meeting Tuesday alongside the governors of Brazil’s nine legally recognized Amazon states, broadcast live on the internet. There, he noted that the fires, while above the acreage of those last year, were below the average in recent memory.
According to satellite imagery from NASA, 2019 is “the most active fire year since 2010.” As of August 2016, NASA described fire activity this year as being on track to be close to average, however, compared to other years by the end of the dry season.
Several governors requested more funding to fight the fires and encouraged Bolsonaro to take $20 million offered by the G7 states to help contain them this weekend. Bolsonaro rejected the money, accusing French President Macron of insulting him and demanding that Macron “withdraw the insults he hurled against me. He called me a liar.”
Bolsonaro kept open the possibility of taking the money if Macron stopped “insulting” him.
Macron and Bolsonaro most recently met at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, in June. Last week, in response to the Amazon fires, a spokesman for Macron told reporters that the president “can only conclude that President Bolsonaro lied to him during the Osaka Summit” about the “urgent need” to protect the environment.
Macron’s attacks on Bolsonaro triggered a stern response from other parts of the Brazilian government, as well. The Brazilian Foreign Ministry chided Macron for not paying its fair share into the Paris Climate Agreement, while Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, referenced the Notre Dame Cathedral fire: “Macron couldn’t even prevent a foreseeable fire in a church that is a World Heritage Site and he wants to teach our country, what [exactly]?”
At the meeting with the governors, Bolsonaro vowed the assembled group would “come up with a solution that would satisfy the world. People like Macron should think twice and three times. Nobody is against dialogue with France.”
France is an Amazonian state, possessing part of the Amazon Rainforest through its colonization of French Guiana in eastern South America.
Bolsonaro’s comments triggered a response from Pará state Governor Hélder Barbalho, who lamented that Brazil was “wasting too much time with Macron, we have to take care of our own problems.”
Bolsonaro spent much of the meeting condemning global coverage of the fires and “unfeasible” environmental regulations passed by his socialist predecessors.
He noted that his government had paused initiatives of past administrations to designate significant chunks of land either environmental or indigenous reserves, arguing that the former were hurting Brazil’s economy and the latter were preventing indigenous communities from fully participating as citizens in Brazilian society.
“The Amazon was used politically since [the time of President Fernando] Collor,” Bolsonaro said, referring to a president whose term ended in 1992. “With all due respect to my predecessors, the policy of the past regarding this, using the indigenous as a [political] tool, was irresponsible. This environmental question has to be conducted with reason, not with this almost savagery that other governments had.”
“These were things from past administrations, under my government everything is frozen,” he said. Referring specifically to the state of Mato Grosso, the highest soy-producing state in the country, he said the environmentalist “attitude” of shutting down agriculture made the state “ever more unviable” economically. “We can reverse this, bringing peace and progress to the rural areas,” the president said.
Bolsonaro joked that environmentalists would soon want to designate a reserve exclusively for the pied tamarin, an endangered Amazonian monkey considered the city animal of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state.
He also referred to demarcation of land for indigenous communities as an “industry” and a “true psychosis,” insisting that his government’s “intention is to integrate the indigenous into society, which is what many of them already want.”
The fires, which typically occur in Brazil, Bolivia, and other Amazon states in the Southern Hemisphere’s spring season, clear land for crops and cattle. Socialist Bolivian President Evo Morales recently expanded farmers’ legal ability to set these fires and has passed at least four laws, not counting agency regulations during his tenure, emboldening deforestation, according to Bolivia’s Página Siete outlet.
Despite Morales’ role in empowering those who seek to burn down rainforest territory to plant crops, much of the world’s outrage at the fire has targeted the conservative Bolsonaro, who took office in January, particularly due to his opposition to government regulations that prevent farmers from using land if endangered species of indigenous communities are found there.