France's Macron calls Amazon rainforest fires an 'international crisis'

Posted at 7:35 AM, Aug 23, 2019

French President Emmanuel Macron has angered his Brazilian counterpart by calling the wildfires blazing in the Amazon rainforest an "international crisis" that should be on the agenda at the G7 summit in Biarritz.

"Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest - the lungs of our planet which produces 20% of our oxygen - is on fire. It is an international crisis," Macron tweeted Thursday.

"Members of the G7 Summit, let's discuss this emergency first order in two days!" he said, adding the hashtag #ActForTheAmazon.

Brazil's far-right president Jair Bolsonaro blasted Macron's offer as "sensationalist" and accused him of using the fires for "political gain."

"I regret that President Macron is seeking to instrumentalize an internal issue in Brazil and in other Amazonian countries for personal political gains," Bolsonaro tweeted .

"The suggestion of the French president that Amazonian issues be discussed in the G7 without countries in the region participating is reminiscent of a colonial mindset inappropriate in the 21st century," he said in a second tweet.

The G7 nations are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US.

Brazil's space research center (INPE) said this week that the country has seen an 80% increase in fires this year, compared with the same period last year. More than half were in the Amazon region, spelling disaster for the local environment and ecology.

And 99% percent of the fires result from human actions "either on purpose or by accident," said Alberto Setzer, a senior scientist at INPE. The burning can range from a small-scale agricultural practice, to new deforestation for a mechanized and modern agribusiness project, Setzer told CNN by email.

Environmental organizations and researchers say the wildfires were set by cattle ranchers and loggers who want to clear and utilize the land, emboldened by the country's pro-business president.

Amnesty International on Thursday said responsibility for the fires "lies squarely with President Bolsonaro and his government," adding that his government's "disastrous policy of opening up the rainforest for destruction (is) what has paved the way for this current crisis."

In a Facebook Live video Thursday, Bolsonaro suggested multiple parties -- including ranchers, NGOs and indigenous communities -- could be to blame.

"Who carries this out? I don't know. Farmers, NGOs, whoever it may be, Indians, whoever it may be," Bolsonaro said. He went on to say there are "suspicions" that ranchers are behind the forest fires and appealed to the Brazilian people to "help us" combat the blazes.

'Looking at untold destruction'

The Amazon is the largest tropical rainforest in the world and accounts for at least 10% of the planet's biodiversity.

It's home to huge numbers of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles -- 75% of which are unique to the Amazon. A new plant or animal species is discovered there every two days.

But the forest and its inhabitants are facing an unparalleled threat from deforestation -- 20% of the Amazon biome has already been lost to mining, logging, farming, hydropower dams and roads, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Deforestation accelerated more than 60% in June 2019 over the same period last year, INPE's data shows. The Amazon lost 769 square kilometres, a stark increase from the 488 sq km lost in June 2018. That equates to an area of rainforest larger than one-and-a-half soccer fields being destroyed every minute each day.

The Amazon forest also produces about 20% of the world's oxygen and is often called "the planet's lungs."

Before the fires, land conversion and deforestation caused the Amazon to release up to 0.5 billion metric tons of carbon per year, according to the WWF. Depending on the damage from the fires, that release would increase, accelerating climate change.

"The Amazon is incredibly important for our future, for our ability to stave off the worst of climate change," said Christian Poirier, the program director of non-profit organization Amazon Watch. "This isn't hyperbole. We're looking at untold destruction — not just of the Amazon but for our entire planet."

Environmentalists are blaming Bolsonaro

More than two-thirds of the Amazon are located in Brazil and environmental groups accuse Bolsonaro, who has previously said he is not "Captain Chainsaw," of relaxing environmental controls in the country and encouraging deforestation.

When running for president, Bolsonaro made campaign promises to restore the economy by exploring the Amazon's economic potential. Now, environmental organizations say he has encouraged ranchers, farmers, and loggers to exploit and burn the rainforest like never before with a sense of impunity.

The pro-business Bolsonaro has hamstrung Brazil's environmental enforcement agency with budget cuts amounting to $23 million -- official data sent to CNN by Observatorio do Clima shows the enforcement agency's operations have fallen since Bolsonaro was sworn in.

The director of Brazil's space research center INPE was recently fired after defending satellite images that showed deforestation was 88% higher in June than a year earlier -- data which Bolsonaro characterized as "lies."

"The vast majority of these fires are human-lit," said Amazon Watch's Poirier, adding that even during dry seasons, the Amazon -- a humid rainforest -- doesn't catch on fire easily, unlike the dry bushland in California or Australia.

Farmers and ranchers have long used fire to clear land, said Poirier, and are likely behind the unusually large number fires burning in the Amazon today.

This year's fires fit with an established seasonal agricultural pattern, said CNN meteorologist Haley Brink. "It's the best time to burn because the vegetation is dry. (Farmers) wait for the dry season and they start burning and clearing the areas so that their cattle can graze. And that's what we're suspecting is going on down there."