Demonstrators march holding a banner with a message that reads in Portuguese:
Demonstrators march holding a banner with a message that reads in Portuguese: "The Amazon belongs to the people". Picture: AP Photo/Andre Penner

The ‘strong’ move to fight Amazon blaze

THE Brazilian president has succumbed to international pressure and sent the nation's military to battle the sweeping fires devastating the Amazon.

The drastic measure comes as thousands flocked to the streets to protest President Jair Bolsonaro's environmental policies and amid global threats of trade sanctions.

A lush forest sits next to a field of charred trees felled by wildfires near Porto Velho, Brazil. Picture: AP/Victor R. Caivano
A lush forest sits next to a field of charred trees felled by wildfires near Porto Velho, Brazil. Picture: AP/Victor R. Caivano

The Brazilian forces will head to border areas and indigenous territories on Saturday for a month-long operation to help contain the fires suffocating the rainforest, known as "the lungs of the Earth''.

"The protection of the forest is our duty," the president said.

"We are aware of that and will act to combat deforestation and criminal activities that put people at risk in the Amazon. We are a government of zero tolerance for crime, and in the environmental field it will not be different."

Mr Bolsonaro has previously been condemned for describing rainforest protections as an obstacle to Brazil's economic development, sparring with critics who say the Amazon produces vast amounts of oxygen and is considered crucial for efforts to contain climate change.

The Amazon rainforest covers more than 5.5 million square kilometres. That's equivalent to Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory combined and produces 20 per cent of the world's oxygen.

About 700 new fires were ignited between Wednesday and Thursday, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), fuelling air contamination in cities including Sao Paulo, where thick smog turned day into night on Monday.

The fires have sparked street protests around the planet and ignited a war of words between Mr Bolsonaro and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, who has described the wildfires as an "international crisis" and vowed to block a trade agreement between the European Union and South American countries.

Mr Bolsonaro then blasted the French president for having a "colonialist mentality." Ireland also threatened to block the trade deal.

"The extent of the fires in the Amazon area is shocking and threatening and not only for Brazil and the other affected countries, but also for the whole world," German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said Friday.

US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson have offered to help contain the sweeping fires.

Demonstrators march holding a banner with a message that reads in Portuguese:
Demonstrators march holding a banner with a message that reads in Portuguese: "The Amazon belongs to the people". Picture: AP Photo/Andre Penner

INTERNATIONAL PARIAH

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 the National Institute for Space Research.

Mr Bolsonaro previously described this as lies and prompted the sacking of the agency's head.

He instead attributes the blazes to increased drought, and accuses environmental groups and NGOs of whipping up an "environmental psychosis" to harm Brazil's economic interests.

Earlier in the week, Mr Bolsonaro accused NGOs of starting the fires. Brazil's powerful agriculture sector - a key supporter of Mr Bolsonaro - has expressed concerns over the president's rhetoric, fearing a boycott of their products in key markets.

Thomaz Favaro of Control Risks consultancy, told AFP Mr Bolsonaro's comments were "raising the risks of sanctions and retaliation, including against the EU-Mercosur deal."

"Brazil has gone from being a global model of forest conservation to an international pariah," Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarape Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro, told AFP.

Close to 20 per cent of the Amazon has already been deforested, said Thomas Lovejoy, a George Mason University environmental scientist.

"I worry that the current deforestation will push past the tipping point leading to massive loss of forest and biodiversity," Mr Lovejoy wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

He said Brazil is "turning its back" on past environmental achievements, including the 1992 Earth Summit, and has proposed infrastructure projects that will accelerate the challenge of climate change.

"Fires are directly burning into the Amazon rainforest and that releases the carbon stored in those trees," said Doug Morton, a NASA scientist.

"The carbon then enters the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane, where it contributes to the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change, bringing us a warmer and a drier planet."

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