Amazon Fires Spark Growing International Criticism of Brazil

France calls the large number of fires in the Amazon an international crisis and an urgent issue for the G7 summit. “Our home is on fire. Literally.”

Farmers and ranchers use fire to clear forest for crops and grazing in the Amazon. This year, the numbers of fires is unusually high. Credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Farmers and ranchers often set fires to clear forest for crops and grazing in the Amazon, a rainforest region that is critical for carbon storage and known as the lungs of the Earth. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has vowed to open more of the Amazon to development and agriculture. Credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

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Ireland's prime minister said there was "no way" his country could support a big trade pact involving Brazil if the South American nation did not honor its environmental commitments, deepening an angry international reaction to fires sweeping through the Amazon rainforest.

Leo Varadkar also accused Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro of an "Orwellian" attempt to blame the fires on environmental non-governmental organizations, after Bolsonaro said he was suspicious that they could be involved.

Brazil is the most important member of the Mercosur trade bloc, which in June struck a long-awaited trade deal with the EU. The pact would offer much better access to EU markets for Brazilian farmers. But Varadkar suggested Dublin could withhold support because of concern over the management of the Amazon.

 

"There is no way that Ireland will vote for the EU-Mercosur free trade agreement if Brazil does not honor its environmental commitments. I am very concerned that this year has seen record levels of destruction of Amazonian forests by fire," Varadkar said.

"There is no way we can tell Irish and European farmers to use fewer pesticides, less fertilizer, embrace biodiversity and plant more of their land and expect them to do it, if we do not make trade deals contingent on decent environmental, labor and product standards. The political agreement on Mercosur does that. We'll monitor closely if they mean it," he said.

To block the Mercosur deal, Ireland would need to find enough allies to form a blocking minority among EU governments who are yet to ratify the deal. The pact also needs approval from the European Parliament before it can come into force.

Mercosur is highly sensitive for Varadkar. Irish farmers, who wield considerable power in the country, fear increased imports of South American beef under the new trade deal.

Number of Amazon Fires Up 84 Percent

Varadkar's comments came after French President Emmanuel Macron called for the fires in the Amazon to be discussed urgently at this weekend's Group of Seven summit in France.

"Our home is on fire. Literally," Macron said on Twitter ahead of the G7 meeting he will host in Biarritz. "The Amazon, the lung of our planet which produces 20 percent of our oxygen, is ablaze. It's an international crisis. G7 members, we meet in two days to discuss this emergency. #ActForTheAmazon."

Macron's intervention prompted an accusation of colonialism from Bolsonaro. Although Macron did not mention Brazil by name, Bolsonaro said the French president's suggestion that Amazon affairs should be discussed without the participation of the countries in the region "evokes a colonialist mentality misplaced in the 21st century."

Brazil, he said, was open to dialogue based on objective data and mutual respect.

According to the Brazilian government's own satellite data, the number of fire outbreaks this year has reached more than 74,000, up 84 percent from the same period last year and the highest since records began in 2013.

Putting Fires and Climate Change on G7 Agenda

Climate change and the environment will be among several international crises to be discussed at a divided G7, which brings together the world's rich democracies: the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Italy and Canada.

Macron's plea for the Amazon was quickly endorsed by Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister. "I couldn't agree more," he said on Twitter. "We did lots of work to protect the environment at the #G7 last year in Charlevoix, & we need to continue this weekend. We need to #ActForTheAmazon & act for our planet — our kids & grandkids are counting on us."

In Germany, the spokesman for Angela Merkel said on Thursday that the chancellor had "exactly the same view of the situation as President Macron."

"The scale of fires in the Amazon is alarming and dangerous, not only for Brazil and the other countries directly affected but for the whole world, because the Amazon rainforest is of such paramount importance for our global climate system and for global biodiversity. It is no exaggeration to say it is the world's green lung," Steffen Seibert said.

The European Commission said Brussels was "deeply worried" by the wildfires and the EU stood ready to assist the Brazilian and Bolivian governments using its Copernicus satellite mapping system.

Reported by Arthur Beesley in Dublin and Victor Mallet in Paris. Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin and Mehreen Khan in Brussels. 

© The Financial Times Limited 2019. All Rights Reserved. Not to be further redistributed, copied or modified in any way.

Published Aug. 23, 2019

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