RIO DE JANEIRO – President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday authorized the deployment of Brazil’s armed forces to help combat fires raging in the Amazon rainforest as a growing global outcry over the blazes sparks protests and threatens a huge trade deal.
Plumes of thick smoke rose into the sky above dense forest in the northwestern state of Rondonia, where bright orange flames from various fires were visible for kilometers.
“It’s like this because of the smoke from the fires,” said a hotel employee in the state capital, Porto Velho, which was cloaked by a layer of smoke as fires burned near the city.
The fires in the world’s largest rainforest have sparked street protests around the planet and ignited a war of words between Bolsonaro and French President Emmanuel Macron, who has described the wildfires as an “international crisis” and vowed to block a trade agreement between the European Union and South American countries.
The latest official figures show 76,720 forest fires were recorded in Brazil so far this year — the highest number for any year since 2013 — which experts blame on accelerating deforestation as land is cleared during the dry season to make way for crops or grazing. More than half are in the Amazon.
Around 700 new fires were ignited between Wednesday and Thursday, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), fueling air contamination in cities including Sao Paulo, where thick smog turned day into night on Monday.
After a late-night crisis meeting with members of his Cabinet, Bolsonaro on Friday issued a decree permitting the deployment of armed forces to help extinguish fires and crack down on criminal activities in the region.
Bolsonaro’s decision came as the fires continue to spark demonstrations around the world. The Amazon forest is considered the “lungs of the planet” and seen as crucial to keeping climate change in check.
Several thousand protesters marched in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo amid growing European pressure as well as offers to help put out the fires from U.S. President Donald Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In an escalating public row over the blazes, Macron on Friday accused Bolsonaro of lying to him about Brazil’s stance on climate change. France will now block a trade deal between the EU and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc that includes Brazil, a French presidential official said.
Ireland also threatened to block the deal, and Finland said it would propose to EU countries that they stop importing Brazilian beef.
Bolsonaro insisted 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 in brief remarks on television Friday evening.
Macron had tweeted Thursday that the fires burning in the Amazon amount to an international crisis and should be discussed as a top priority when the G7 countries meet this weekend in France.
Bolsonaro then blasted Macron as having a “colonialist mentality.”
Environmental specialists say the fires have accompanied a rapid rate of deforestation in the Amazon region, which in July quadrupled compared with the same month last year, according to INPE data, which Bolsonaro previously described as lies and prompted the sacking of the agency’s head.
Bolsonaro instead attributes the blazes to increased drought and accuses environmental groups and NGOs of whipping up an “environmental psychosis” to harm Brazil’s economic interests.
Earlier in the week, Bolsonaro accused NGOs of starting the fires.
Brazil’s powerful agriculture sector — one of his key supporters — expressed concerns over the president’s rhetoric, fearing boycotts of products in key markets.
Thomaz Favaro of Control Risks consultancy, said Bolsonaro’s comments were “raising the risks of sanctions and retaliation, including against the EU-Mercosur deal.”
“Brazil has gone from being a global model of forest conservation to an international pariah,” said Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarape Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro.
Bolsonaro has also given “ammunition” to countries opposed to the EU-Mercosur deal, said Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at Getulio Vargas Foundation.
The mayor of Manaus, the largest Brazilian city in the Amazon, told reporters Friday the rainforest is “fundamental for the world.”
“The entire world demands sensible, intelligent, appropriate governance for the Amazon at the risk of regrettable consequences for our country,” Arthur Virgilio Neto said on the sidelines of a U.N. climate change workshop in the northeastern city of Salvador.
Legendary tribal chief Raoni called for international help to extinguish the fires.
Neighboring Paraguay and Bolivia are battling separate wildfires that have devastated large areas of their rainforests as well.
The Bolivian government on Friday took delivery of a “supertanker” aircraft to help extinguish fires that have destroyed around 7,770 sq. km (3,000 sq. miles) of the eastern province of Santa Cruz for the past month.