By DIANE JEANTET, Associated Press
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s official monitoring agency is reporting a sharp increase in wildfires this year, and President Jair Bolsonaro suggested Wednesday, without citing evidence, that non-governmental organizations could be setting them to make him look bad.
Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, a federal agency monitoring deforestation and wildfires, said the country has seen a record number of wildfires this year, counting 74,155 as of Tuesday, an 84 percent increase compared to the same period last year. Bolsonaro took office on Jan. 1.
“Maybe, I am not affirming it, these [ONG people] are carrying out some criminal actions to draw attention against me, against the government of Brazil,” Bolsonaro said in a video posted on his Facebook account. “This is the war we are facing.”
When asked by reporters if he had evidence, the president did not provide any.
The states that have been most affected this year are Mato Grosso, Para and Amazonas —all in the Amazon region— accounting for 41.7 percent of all fires.
Bolsonaro, who once threatened to leave the Paris climate accord, has repeatedly attacked environmental nonprofits, seen as obstacles in his quest to develop the country’s full economic potential, including in protected areas.
Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles are both close to the powerful rural caucus in Congress and have been urging more development and economic opportunities in the Amazon region, which they consider overly protected by current legislation.
Some NGOs, environmentalists and academics have been blaming the administration’s pro-development policies for a sharp increase in Amazon deforestation shown in the latest data from the space research institute.
The government is also facing international pressure to protect the vast rainforest from illegal logging or mining activities.
Citing Brazil’s apparent lack of commitment to fighting deforestation, Germany and Norway have decided to withhold more than $60 million in funds earmarked for sustainability projects in Brazil’s forests.
French and German leaders have also threatened not to ratify a trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur countries to pressure Brazil into complying with its environmental pledges within the Paris Climate Agreement.
Meanwhile, Environment Minister Salles was booed Wednesday as he took the stage at a five-day U.N. workshop on climate change in the northern state of Bahia, an event he had tried to cancel earlier this year.
Some in the audience shouted while waving signs reading, “Stop Ecocide” or “The Amazon is burning.”
Sales spoke briefly, saying climate change needs to be addressed.
“People are asking for more and more actions…. There is an acknowledgment that we are in a situation of crisis and emergency,” said Manuel Pulgar Vidal, former environment minister of Peru, who attended the event.
Vidal, who now works for the nonprofit WWF, said the criticism directed at Salles could eventually prod the administration into taking action on climate change. “There is no room for negationism,” Vidal said.
Associated Press journalist Victor Caivano contributed to this report from Salvador, Brazil.