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Amazon fires: Brazil sends in 44,000 troops to tackle blazes as Bolsonaro is accused of ignoring illegal deforestation

Phoebe Weston
A firefighter battles against the fire in Rio Branco, in the Amazonian State of Acre: EPA

Tens of thousands of Brazilian troops are being sent into the Amazon in an “unprecedented” operation to fight wildfires as new analysis points the finger at Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro for causing the escalating environmental crisis.

Backed by military aircraft, some 44,000 troops will be available to put out the fires which have created a layer of smoke 1.2 million square miles wide and devastated large swathes of valuable pristine forest.

New analysis has revealed that the number of fines handed out to people for unlawful environmental destruction has fallen to a 10-year low.

Between 1 January and 23 August, Mr Bolsonaro’s government handed out 6,895 fines, a drop of 29.4 per cent from the previous year, according to an in-depth analysis by BBC Brazil.

Yet there have been more than 70,000 fires this year – nearly double the number in the same period last year.

Throughout his leadership campaign, Mr Bolsonaro declared support for clearing the jungle to make way for cattle pastures and soybean farms. It seems he has delivered on his promise, according to Mike Barrett, executive director of conservation and science at WWF UK.

“The reason why [the number of fires] is higher than before is I think it’s very clear that there has been a change in the political rhetoric within Brazil, and that has led to those who wish to deforest feeling empowered to do so,” he said.

“Because of the size of the Amazon, the Amazon actually stores more carbon than any other living body, any other living ecosystem on the planet, so that’s why it plays such a crucial role in tackling climate change. If we lose the Amazon then we will almost certainly lose the fight against climate change,” Mr Barrett said.

Brazilian prosecutors are now investigating whether lax enforcement of environmental regulations may have contributed to the surge in the number of fires.

In the face of fierce environmental criticism Mr Bolsonaro tried to temper global concern, saying that previously deforested areas had burned and that intact rainforest was spared. Brazil’s justice ministry also said federal police will be deployed in fire zones to assist other state agencies and combat “illegal deforestation”.

The military’s first mission into the Amazon will be carried out by 700 troops around Porto Velho, capital of Rondonia, Brazil’s defence minister Fernando Azevedo said. The military will use two C-130 Hercules aircraft capable of dumping up to 12,000 litres of water on fires, he added.

An Associated Press journalist flying over the Porto Velho region reported hazy conditions and low visibility. The reporter saw many already deforested areas that were burned, apparently by people clearing farmland, as well as a large column of smoke billowing from one fire.

The municipality of Nova Santa Helena in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state was also hard-hit. Trucks were seen driving along a highway as fires blazed and embers smouldered in adjacent fields.

The Brazilian military operations came after widespread criticism of Mr Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis. On Friday, the president authorised the armed forces to put out fires, saying he is committed to protecting the Amazon region.

Despite international concern, Mr Bolsonaro told reporters that the situation was returning to normal. He said he was “speaking to everyone” about the problem, including US president Donald Trump, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez and several Latin American leaders.

The Amazon fires have become a global issue, escalating tensions between Brazil and European countries who believe Mr Bolsonaro has neglected commitments to protect biodiversity. Protesters gathered outside Brazilian diplomatic missions in European and Latin American cities on Friday, and demonstrators also marched in Brazil.

“The planet’s lungs are on fire. Let’s save them!” read a sign at a protest outside Brazil’s embassy in Mexico City.

The dispute spilled into the economic arena when French leader Emmanuel Macron threatened to block a European Union trade deal with Brazil and several other South American countries.

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Boris Johnson on the Amazon fires

“First we need to help Brazil and other countries put out these fires,” Mr Macron said on Saturday.

The goal is to “preserve this forest that we all need because it is a treasure of our biodiversity and our climate thanks to the oxygen that it emits and thanks to the carbon it absorbs,” he said.

In a weekly video message released on Saturday, German chancellor Angela Merkel said the G7 leaders “cannot be silent” and should discuss how to help extinguish the fires.

Bolivia has also struggled to contain fires that swept through woods and fields. A US-based aircraft, the B747-400 Supertanker, is flying over devastated areas in Bolivia to help put out the blazes and protect forests.

On Saturday, several helicopters, along with police, military troops, firefighters and volunteers on the ground, worked to extinguish fires in Bolivia’s Chiquitania region, where the woods are dry at this time of year.

Farmers commonly set fires in this season to clear land for crops or livestock, but sometimes the blazes get out of control.

Additional reporting by PA

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