JACUNDA NATIONAL FOREST, Brazil (AP) — Brazil insisted on Tuesday that it would set conditions for accepting any aid from the world’s richest nations to help fight Amazon fires, saying France couldn’t protect the Notre Dame Cathedral from fire devastation and should focus on its own problems.
The increasingly personal feud between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and French leader Emmanuel Macron threatened to derail a pledge of tens of millions of dollars by the Group of Seven nations for the Amazon region.
Brazil has bristled over what it views as neo-colonial interference by Europe on matters of sovereignty and economic development. The acrimony appears to be undercutting hopes of united action to protect the Amazon’s rainforests, a major absorber of carbon dioxide that is described as a critical defense against climate change.
Bolsonaro said the French president had called him a liar and he accused Macron of questioning Brazil’s sovereignty amid tensions over the fires.
Macron has to retract those comments “and then we can speak,” Bolsonaro said.
Bolsonaro met Tuesday with governors of states in the Amazon region, some of whom criticized laws that protect the environment and the rights of indigenous people that they said limited opportunities for economic development.
Marcos Jose Rocha dos Santos, the governor of Rondonia, which has been at the center of the current fires, questioned the intentions of international aid.
“International resources are welcome as long as who uses those resources is us,” Rocha dos Santos said. “We will determine where the money will be applied, it’s useless if those resources get here and go to international NGOs,” he said, arguing that the fires were nothing out of the ordinary.
At a summit in France on Monday, 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.
Onyx Lorenzoni, the Brazilian president’s chief of staff, sharpened the criticism, saying Europe should use the funds for its own reforestation. Then he referred to Notre Dame, the medieval monument in Paris that was ravaged by fire in April, shocking the world.
“Macron could not avoid an obvious fire in a church that is a world heritage site,” Lorenzoni said, according to Brazil’s G1 news website.
“What does he want to teach to our country? He has a lot to take care of in his own home and his French colonies,” said the chief of staff, echoing a remark by his boss that France was treating the Amazon region countries like a colony.
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 was a “mistake.”
He said the aid money isn’t just aimed at Brazil, but at nine countries in the vast Amazon region that also spans Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, an overseas region of France. About 60% of the Amazon region is in Brazil.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump complimented Bolsonaro, saying he knows the Brazilian president well and that the United States supports him. “He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil – Not easy,” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
On Monday, equipped with hoses connected to rubber backpacks, Brazilian firefighters in the Amazon 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 chain saws 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 enormity 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 Amazon has experienced more fires during drought periods in the last 20 years, but the phenomenon this year is “unusual” because drought has not yet hit, said Laura Schneider of Rutgers University-New Brunswick in the United States.
Schneider, an associate professor in the university’s geography department, said fire is commonly used by people to clear land for cultivation. She said the actual area burned this year must be measured for an accurate comparison with damage in past years.
The international aid pledges came even though Bolsonaro has 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.”
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 on 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 that the fires were devastating the environment around them, and needing to extract the Amazon’s rich natural resources to make a living.
In one village, Darcy Rodrigo De Souza walked barefoot into a shop where people drank coffee and ate Pao de Queijo, traditional 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?”
Associated Press writer Luis Andres Henao reported from Jacunda National Forest and AP writer Christopher Torchia reported from Rio de Janeiro. Anna Jean Kaiser contributed from Rio de Janeiro.