World

Brazil will accept aid for Amazon fires only if French leader retracts comments

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro says Brazil will only accept an offer of international aid to fight Amazon fires if French leader Emmanuel Macron retracts comments that he finds offensive.

G7 offer draws scorn from President Jair Bolsonaro amid rapid deterioration in relations with Emmanuel Macron

France's President Emmanuel Macron, left, and Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro attend the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan on June 28. The two leaders have been feuding in recent days as the world's largest tropical rainforest is ravaged by a record number of fires. (Jacques Witt/AFP/Getty Images)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Tuesday said Brazil will only accept an offer of international aid to fight Amazon fires if French leader Emmanuel Macron retracts comments that he finds offensive.

Bolsonaro said Macron had called him a liar and he accused the French president of questioning Brazil's sovereignty amid tensions over fires sweeping the Amazon region.

Macron has to retract some of his comments "and then we can speak," Bolsonaro told reporters.

He spoke a day after the Group of Seven nations pledged $26.5 million Cdn to help fight the flames in the Amazon and protect the rainforest, in addition to a separate $15.8 million Cdn from Britain and $15 million Cdn from Canada.

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 is a "mistake." He said the money isn't just aimed at Brazil but at nine countries in the Amazon region, including Colombia and Bolivia. France, too, considers itself an Amazon country via its overseas region of French Guiana.

Macron and Bolsonaro have been feuding over social media in recent days, veering into personal matters. The Brazilian leader on Sunday hit the like button on his Facebook page for a post by a supporter who mocked the appearance of Macron's wife, Brigitte. Bolsonaro added a quip about Macron being humiliated.

Macron hit back on Monday, saying Bolsonaro "has made some extraordinarily rude comments about my wife."

Reforest Europe, Bolsonaro aide says

Bolsonaro's chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, weighed in on Monday and suggested France take the money pledged by the Group of Seven nations and spend it at home.

"We appreciate [the offers], but maybe those resources are more relevant to reforest Europe," Lorenzoni, told Brazil's GloboNews website.

"[French President Emmanuel] Macron cannot even avoid a predictable fire in a church that is part of the world's heritage, and he wants to give us lessons for our country?" Lorenzoni added, in a reference to the fire that ravaged Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris in April.

Army soldiers and firefighters prepare to deploy Sunday to put out fires in the Vila Nova Samuel region, along the road to the National Forest of Jacunda, near the city of Porto Velho, Rondonia state, part of Brazil's Amazon. (Eraldo Peres/The Associated Press)

Brazil's Environment Minister Ricardo Salles welcomed the aid efforts, but Bolsonaro later struck a different note after a meeting with his ministers, accusing Macron of regarding the region like a "colony, or no-man's land," and suggesting the West is angling to exploit Brazil's natural resources.

Macron said that interpretation was off the mark and that the money is a sign of friendship — not "aggression."

The number of fires in the Amazon is up sharply from last year, threatening the region that environmentalists refer to as "the lungs of the world." It's believed most of the fires have been set by farmers or ranchers clearing land.

Farmer Helio Lombardo Do Santos and a dog walk through a burnt area of the Amazon rainforest, near Porto Velho, on Monday. Hundreds of new fires have flared up in the Amazon in Brazil, new data show, even as military aircraft dumped water over hard-hit areas and G7 nations pledged to help combat the blazes. (Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

Equipped with hoses connected to rubber backpacks, Brazilian firefighters in the Amazon on Monday 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 conflagration 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 chainsaws 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 huge scale 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 the number of fires has risen by 85 per cent 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, many in just the past month.

An aerial view shows smoke rising over a deforested plot of the Amazon jungle in Porto Velho on Aug. 24. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters )

The AP team drove for hours at a stretch outside the Rondonia capital of Porto Velho without seeing any major fires, suggesting many had been extinguished or burned themselves out since rapidly spreading in recent weeks. Many fires were set in already deforested areas to clear land for farming and livestock.

Still, smoke billowed from charred fields and scrub, shrouding the sky. The airport in Porto Velho closed for more than an hour on Monday morning because of poor visibility caused by the haze.

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.

A fire Sunday burning in a section of the Amazon rainforest in the Candeias do Jamari region near Porto Velho. (Victor Moriyama/Getty Images)

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 local 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.

"We have to preserve the land. The government has to help small farmers more, prioritize and take care of the large reserves, where people do most of the illegal things," said Willian Sabara Dos Santos, a farm manager. Behind him, a Brazilian flag on a pole fluttered in the wind next to a statue of a bull that he said was a replica of the iconic Charging Bull sculpture on New York's Wall Street.

In a nearby 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?"

About 60 per cent of the Amazon region is in Brazil, although the vast forest also spans parts of Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru and Suriname. The Amazon's rainforests are a major absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and described by environmentalists as a critical defence against climate change.

On Monday, an army major said officials have determined the fires around Porto Velho have decreased as a result of rains over the last couple of days.

But near the Jacunda national forest, thunder boomed as firefighters worked to suffocate flames that continued to burn into the evening.

One firefighter prayed for rain as he put on a protective mask. All around him, the heavy smell of burning wood permeated the air, making it hard to breathe.

With files from CBC News

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