- Tens of thousands of active fires are ravaging the Brazilian Amazon in recent weeks, sparking protests in cities across Brazil and around the world, urging effective action from far-right President Jair Bolsonaro to contain fires in the world’s largest rainforest.
- On August 23, demonstrators blocked off roads, shouting slogans and holding placards reading: “Stop killing our Amazon” in cities that included São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, London, Geneva, Paris, Berlin and Toronto. Protesters also demanded Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles to resign.
- An online petition in the UK asked the European Union to sanction Brazil for its increased deforestation. Within a day, it collected over 65,000 signatures. If it reaches the 100,000 signatures mark, the petition will be considered for debate in Parliament.
- French President Emmanuel Macron also have called for emergency talks at the G7 summit in Biarritz to discuss the record number of fires, calling the situation an international crisis and gaining the support of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
SÃO PAULO AND LONDON — Thousands of protesters took to the streets in cities across Brazil and around the world on August 23, urging effective action from far-right President Jair Bolsonaro to contain tens of thousands of active fires ravaging the Brazilian Amazon in recent weeks.
Demonstrators blocked off roads, shouting slogans and holding placards reading: “Stop killing our Amazon” in cities that included São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, London, Geneva, Paris, Berlin and Toronto, part of a growing international outcry against the lack of action from the Bolsonaro administration to protect the world’s largest rainforest, where fires and deforestation have hit a record high this year.
Protestors in São Paulo took over Avenida Paulista, the city’s main avenue, drumming, chanting and cheering, with signs and banners held high calling for the ouster of Bolsonaro and Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles, and declaring, “No forest, no water.”
“This is the first time Brazilians have ever come out to defend the forest like this,” said biologist Erica Guimarães, as chants of, “The Amazon will stay, Bolsonaro will go” rose from the crowd. “We protest for better healthcare, better education, better treatment from politicians, but we forget about the forest. We can’t do that. The forest gives us life. It’s a part of our DNA,” she said.
Amazon fires came into the spotlight this week, when São Paulo’s skies suddenly turned black with smoke on August 19, as experts pointed out the link between deforestation and the fires. The shocking Armageddon-like conditions in São Paulo prompted an outpouring of concern across social media worldwide under the #PrayforAmazonas hashtag, which reached more than 300,000 tweets in two days.
The number of active fires hit 74,155 between January 1 and August 20, a spike of 85 percent compared to the same period in 2018, according to data from the Brazilian National Institute of Space Research (INPE). About half of fire occurrences this year were registered in the last 20 days, INPE data showed. Experts said the rising fire occurrences are directly connected to deforestation, given the lack of drought this year.
In London, the protest was organized by Extinction Rebellion (ER), a protest group renowned for recent climate change activism. Demonstrators held placards reading, “Our house is on fire” and “This is a crime against humanity,” and made the same call for the president’s resignation, shouting, “Hey, ho, Bolsonaro has to go!”
Marilyn Taylor, a British teacher and member of ER said the demonstration is engaging many people in eco-activism because they acknowledge the importance of protecting the “lungs of the planet.”
“Bolsonaro says the world should stay out of Brazil’s business, but the whole world relies on the Amazon. The world should help Brazil to protect it.”
International retaliation against the Bolsonaro administration has escalated since early August, when Germany announced plans to withdraw some €35 million (US $39.5 million) in funding for Brazilian environmental projects, followed by a US$33.2 million-freeze from Norway to the Amazon Fund, due to the country’s lack of commitment to curbing deforestation in the Amazon.
The moves followed the release of satellite alert data from national space research institute INPE showing that Brazil’s Amazon deforestation in June 2019 was 88 percent greater than for the same month in 2018, while deforestation in July 2019 was 278 percent higher than July 2018. Overall, deforestation in 2019 is up 57 percent relative to a year ago, according to INPE.
Bolsonaro called the numbers “lies” but failed to substantiate his attack against an institution recognized nationally and internationally for its cutting-edge satellite-imaging and deforestation monitoring programs. Nonetheless he accused INPE director Ricardo Galvão of secretly working for an NGO and fired Galvão. That move sparked sharp blowback from the public and rebukes from the scientific community worldwide.
After news of the fires — already raging across the Amazon for weeks — an online petition in the UK asked the European Union to sanction Brazil for its increased deforestation. Within a day, it collected over 65,000 signatures. If it reaches the 100,000 signatures mark, the petition will be considered for debate in Parliament.
French President Emmanuel Macron also called on Thursday for emergency talks at the G7 summit in Biarritz to discuss the record number of fires, calling the situation an international crisis and gaining the support of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. France was also joined by Ireland in its threat to block the Mercosur free-trade agreement between the EU and South America if Bolsonaro didn’t get the fires under control.
Bolsonaro reacted to Macron’s assertion by calling the French president’s position “a misplaced colonialist mindset.” He addressed the nation Friday night as protests were in full swing, announcing he had authorized the Armed Forces to help combat the fires still burning across the Amazon and saying his was a government that had “zero tolerance for crime, and environmental crimes are no different.”
“The Amazon rainforest is an essential part of our history, of our territory and of everything that makes us feel Brazilian,” he said in the formal TV and radio address, an oddity for the president, who prefers to communicate on social media. “Because of my military background and my trajectory as a man in public service, I have profound love and respect for the Amazon.”
Bolsonaro’s latest statements are in stark contrast to his longtime pro-agribusiness rhetoric, which he carried out in policy when, shortly after taking office earlier this year, he attempted to merge the ministries of agriculture and environment and made moves to open up conservation units and indigenous territories to mining, a move he has promised to make since he was a candidate for the presidency.
For Camilo Kayapó, an indigenous protester in São Paulo, it’s this type of rhetoric that has emboldened those clear-cutting the Amazon, putting both the environment and the region’s residents at risk. “The president is endorsing deforestation,” he said. “He’s allowing them to take our land for mining, for logging, for agriculture. And we have to watch our family members die every day.”
Despite having Bolsonaro’s support, Brazilian agribusiness is concerned with an international boycott of Brazilian agricultural products. According to Marcello Brito, president of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association, it’s just “a matter of time.”
“It will cost Brazil dearly to regain the confidence of some international markets,” he told financial newspaper Valor Econômico.
For Annaís Berlin, a Brazilian activist who protested in London, it is essential to draw other countries’ attention to stop Bolsonaro.
“Other governments… have the power, [they] need to do something. Boycott Brazil, stop the Mercosur and European Union trade deal. Stop talking to this ‘guy’ [Bolsonaro],” Berlin said.
Banner image caption: Protesters against far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in front of the Brazilian Embassy in London. Image by Elisângela Mendonça for Mongabay.
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