Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday accused non-governmental organizations of burning down the Amazon rainforest to hurt his government, as a growing global outcry against the wildfires raged through social media.
Wildfires raging in the Amazon rainforest have hit a record number this year, with 72,843 fires detected so far by Brazil's space research center INPE, as concerns grow over right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro's environmental policy.
The surge marks an 83pc increase over the same period of 2018, the agency said on Tuesday, and is the highest since records began in 2013.
Presented without evidence and disputed by environmental and climate experts, Bolsonaro's comments enraged critics and fanned a growing social media campaign over the dangers to the Amazon, one of the world's key bulwarks against climate change.
#PrayforAmazonas was the world's top trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday, and millions of people took to Instagram and Facebook to share concerns over the future of the Amazon. With global awareness growing, Bolsonaro's comments risk creating a spiraling crisis for his government, imperiling an EU-Mercosur trade pact and upsetting key agribusiness clients.
"Everything indicates" that NGOs were going to the Amazon to "set fire" to the forest, Bolsonaro said in a Facebook Live broadcast on Wednesday morning. When asked if he had evidence to back up his claims, he said he had "no written plan," adding "that's not how it's done."
The former army captain turned politician said the slashing of NGO funding by his government could be a motive.
"Crime exists," he said. "These people are missing the money."
Since Thursday, INPE said satellite images spotted 9,507 new forest fires in the country, mostly in the Amazon basin, home to the world's largest tropical forest seen as vital to countering global warming.
Images show the northernmost state of Roraima covered in dark smoke. Amazonas declared an emergency in the south of the state and in its capital Manaus on Aug. 9. Acre, on the border with Peru, has been on environmental alert since Friday due to the fires.
Wildfires have increased in Mato Grosso and Para, two states where Brazil's agricultural frontier has pushed into the Amazon basin and spurred deforestation. Wildfires are common in the dry season, but are also deliberately set by farmers illegally deforesting land for cattle ranching.
The unprecedented surge in wildfires has occurred since Bolsonaro took office in January vowing to develop the Amazon region for farming and mining, ignoring international concern over increased deforestation.
"There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average," said INPE researcher Alberto Setzer.
People frequently blame the dry season for the wildfires in the Amazon, but that is not quite accurate, he said.
"The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident," Setzer said.
Bolsonaro recently fired the director of INPE after he criticized agency statistics showing an increase in deforestation in Brazil, saying they were inaccurate.
"I am waiting for the next set of numbers, that will not be made up numbers. If they are alarming, I will take notice of them in front of you," he told reporters.
Environmental and climate experts labeled his claims that NGOs were responsible a "smoke screen" to hide his government's dismantling of protections for the world's largest tropical rainforest. They said farmers clearing land were responsible for the uptick in fires.
"This is a sick statement, a pitiful statement," said Marcio Astrini, Greenpeace Brazil's public policy coordinator. "Increased deforestation and burning are the result of his anti-environmental policy."
Bolsonaro, a longtime skeptic of environmental concerns, wants to open the Amazon to more agriculture and mining, and has told other countries worried about rising deforestation under his watch to mind their own business.
Congressman Nilto Tatto, leader of the lower house environment caucus, said Bolsonaro's "stunning" attack on NGOs was an attempt to obscure his administration's destruction of 30 years of Brazilian environmental protections.
Climate scientist Carlos Nobre said farmers seeking to clear land for cattle pastures wait for the dry season when forests become combustible and then set them alight. He attributed this year's spike to illegal deforestation since it has not been unusually dry.
"NGOs working in the Amazon do not use fire in farming. On the contrary, they encourage rural communities to avoid fire," said Nobre, senior researcher at Sao Paulo University's Institute for Advanced Studies.
Former presidential candidate and environment minister Marina Silva took to Twitter to criticize Bolsonaro.
"The Amazon is on fire," she wrote. "The president says NGOs may be behind this. The lack of commitment to the truth is a chronic pathology. This irresponsible attitude only aggravates an environmental disaster in Brazil."
Speaking later on Wednesday, Bolsonaro also took aim at the Paris climate accord, saying that if it were so good, the United States would have stayed in it. But he added that for the time being, Brazil would remain in the pact.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned in June he would not sign the EU-Mercosur trade treaty if Bolsonaro pulled Brazil out of the Paris accord.
Earlier this month, Norway and Germany suspended funding for projects to curb deforestation in Brazil after becoming alarmed by changes to the way projects were selected under Bolsonaro.
Source: The Independant