European leaders on Friday threatened to tear up a trade deal with South America, reflecting growing international anger at Brazil as a record number of fires in the Amazon rainforest intensified an unfolding environmental crisis.
Amid a global chorus of concern and condemnation, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, in an address to the nation, pledghed to mobilise the army to help combat the blazes, while his administration launched a diplomatic charm offensive to try to mend bridges overseas.
Forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon, which accounts for more than half of the world’s largest rainforest, have surged in number by 83 percent this year, according to government data, destroying vast swaths of a vital bulwark against global climate change.
Images of fires raging in the Amazon broadcast around the globe sparked protests outside Brazilian embassies from Mexico City and Lima to London and Paris.
In the Cypriot capital Nicosia, a sign tied to the railings of Brazil’s diplomatic mission read: “The Amazon belongs to Earth, not to the Brazilian president.”
Bolsonaro, who initially accused non-governmental organisations of setting the forest on fire without providing any evidence, said in a televised address he had authorised the use of troops to fight the fires and stop illegal deforestation in the Amazon.
But the former military officer attributed the scale of the fires to drier-than-average weather and insisted on the need for economic development of the Amazon to improve the lives of its 20 million inhabitants.
Environmentalists have warned that his controversial plans for more agriculture and mining in the region will speed up deforestation.
The wildfires now look set to be discussed at the summit of G7 leaders in France this weekend, where Macron has called for leaders to sign a charter to protect biodiversity.
The French leader said an “ecocide” was taking place in the Amazon that required an international response.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that the fires were “not only heartbreaking, they are an international crisis,” while a spokeswoman said Johnson would use the summit to call for a renewed focus on protecting nature.
France and Ireland said on Friday they would now oppose the EU-Mercosur farming deal struck in June between the European Union and the Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
The French president’s office accused Bolsonaro of lying when he downplayed concerns over climate change at the G20 summit in June.
“There is no way that Ireland will vote for the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement if Brazil does not honour its environmental commitments,” Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said in a statement.
The EU-Mercosur deal took 20 years to negotiate, but will not be officially ratified for at least another two years.
Brazilian business leaders also warned the backlash over Brazil’s environmental record could sink its efforts to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based club of 37 developed nations whose imprimatur is required by many institutional investors.
Having first dismissed the fires as natural, then blaming non-governmental organisations without evidence for lighting them, Bolsonaro appeared to adopt a more serious approach on Friday following the international outcry, summoning top cabinet members for an afternoon meeting to tailor a response.