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24.08.2019 US & Canada

Brazilian army called in to battle Amazon fires as angry protests flare up

REUTERS/Nacho Doce
LISTEN AUG 24, 2019

Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro on Friday issued a decree for the deployment of armed forces to help extinguish the massive fires raging in the Amazon rainforest. The disaster has sparked street protests worldwide and will be a major talking point at the G7 summit in France.

After a late-night crisis meeting with members of his cabinet, Bolsonaro said his decision would also enable the army to crack down on criminal activities in the region.

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.

In the northwestern state of Rondonia, bright orange flames from various fires were visible for kilometers, according to an AFP photographer.

"It's not normal and it's like this because of the smoke from the fires," said a hotel employee in the state capital Porto Velho, which was covered by a layer of smoke as fires burned near the city.

Fires spark major protests
Bolsonaro's decision came as demonstrations were held around the world over the fires in the Amazon forest, a region 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 US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

While elsewhere, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside Brazilian embassies in cities including Santiago, London, Madrid and Bogota, calling for Bolsonaro to act.

The mayor of Manaus, Brazil's largest city in the Amazon, told reporters Friday the rainforest was "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 UN climate change workshop in the northeastern city of Salvador.

Legendary tribal chief Raoni also called for international help to extinguish the fires.

Fires a priority for G7 summit
In an escalating public row over the blazes, France's President Emmanuel Macron on Friday accused Bolsonaro of lying to him on Brazil's stance on climate change.

As a result, Macron has said Paris would block efforts to seal a major trade deal between Latin America and the EU, known as Mercosur.

Macron has called for emergency talks at the G7, which lasts from Saturday to Monday, aiming for "concrete measures" to tackle the crisis.

"We are going to try and mobilise everyone to raise funding for reforestation as quickly as possible," Macron added on Friday.

Bolsonaro on Friday insisted that 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 commented on television, adding that "some countries" will defend Brazil at the G7 meet.

Environmental specialists say the fires have accompanied a rapid rate of deforestation in the Amazon region, which in July quadrupled compared to the same month in 2018, according to INPE data, which Bolsonaro previously described as lies and prompted the sacking of the agency's head.

Neighboring Paraguay and Bolivia are also battling separate wildfires that have devastated large areas of their rainforests.

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