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Brazil’s Bolsonaro says he might accept G-7 offer to help fight Amazon fires — if Macron apologizes

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/27/2019 Marina Lopes, Terrence McCoy

SAO PAULO, Brazil —Brazil’s president Tuesday retreated from his country’s initial rejection of a $22.2 million package from the Group of Seven nations to help fight fires sweeping through the Amazon rainforest.

But President Jair Bolsonaro said any consideration of the aid remained tied up in his dispute with French President Emmanuel Macron — even as officials in the fire-stricken regions spoke of negotiating directly with other countries for help if needed.

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Bolsonaro said he wouldn’t make a final decision until Macron apologized for remarks that Bolsonaro considered a challenge to his credibility and an attack on Brazil’s sovereignty.

“Before speaking or accepting anything from France, even if it comes from the best possible intentions, he must retract his words. Then we can talk,” he told journalists. 

His comments were the latest escalation of the feud between the two presidents while the world’s most precious rainforest burns. 

Macron threatened last week to block a free-trade agreement between the European Union and South America, saying Bolsonaro had lied to him about his commitment to the environment. Over the weekend, Bolsonaro appeared to mock the appearance of Macron’s wife.

Brazil’s ambassador to France told national television early Tuesday that the country would reject the G-7 offer because it was not involved in the decision-making process.

Bolsonaro — a climate change skeptic — has questioned the donors’ “colonial mentality.”

“We cannot accept that a President, Macron, issues inappropriate and gratuitous attacks against the Amazon,” he tweeted. “Nor that he disguises his intentions behind an ‘alliance’ of the G-7 countries to ‘save’ the Amazon, as if it were a colony or no man’s land.”

Slideshow by photo services

Macron said Monday that an international statute protecting the forest would be “a real possibility if a sovereign state took concrete actions that clearly went against the interest of the planet.”

“The challenge when it comes to climate is such that nobody can say, ‘It is not my problem,’ ” he said.

Brazil has long been wary of foreigners’ interest in the Amazon.

Bolsonaro’s administration appeared split on whether to accept the money. His environmental minister said Monday he welcomed the aid.

“I think we need to aggregate as many tools as possible to resolve this,” Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said on Brazilian television.

Governors in the Amazon said they were willing to bypass Brazil’s federal government and negotiate directly with Europe if necessary.

“We cannot be without these resources,” Wilson Lima, the Amazonas state governor, told the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo Monday.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo urged European countries to channel aid through the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change instead of creating new initiatives.

“It is very clear that some political channels are trying to extrapolate real environmental concerns and use them in a fabricated ‘crisis’ as a pretext to introduce mechanisms for foreign control of the Amazon,” he tweeted.

Brazil has been open to support from some countries.

Bolsonaro said Sunday he had accepted an offer from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to send Israeli airplanes and pilots experienced in fighting fires. President Trump has said the United States is ready to help but has not offered specifics.

“I have gotten to know President @jairbolsonaro well in our dealings with Brazil,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil — Not easy. He and his country have the full and complete support of the USA!”

Bolsonaro thanked Trump.

“We’re fighting the wildfires with great success,” he tweeted in response to the U.S. president. “Brazil is and will always be an international reference in sustainable development. The fake news campaign built against our sovereignty will not work.”

Several of Brazil’s South American neighbors have also offered help. Bolsonaro said Tuesday he planned to meet with Colombian President Iván Duque to discuss the fires and “develop a joint plan that respects our sovereignty and development.”

Bolsonaro campaigned on promises to open the Amazon up for business and development. Since his inauguration in January, deforestation and fires — many of them started by farmers and loggers to clear land — have surged.

The number of blazes in the Amazon states has risen by more than 75 percent this year, and the rate at which they’re scorching the earth has doubled.

The Amazon serves as the lungs of the planet, a key defense against climate change. It takes in 25 percent of the carbon dioxide absorbed by the world’s forests.

But scientists warn that deforestation is approaching a tipping point — between 20 percent and 25 percent — when the damage could be irreversible, and large swaths could transform into savanna.

Earlier this month, Germany and Norway cut a combined $72 million in aid to the Amazon after Bolsonaro said he would give some of the money to cattle and soy farmers.

The fires have become Bolsonaro’s biggest international and domestic crisis since taking office. Macron has threatened to block the long-negotiated Mercosur-European Union trade deal over Bolsonaro’s Amazon policies, and polls show support for Bolsonaro and his government is slipping.

A meeting between Bolsonaro and governors of the Amazon states revealed divisions. Some governors joined the president in accusing Macron of using the fires to violate Brazil’s sovereignty. Some cited mounting unemployment rates and asked for looser regulations to stimulate the economy.

“It is possible to use resources in a sustainable way that respects the environment, but in a way that allows our people and our country to grow,” said Antonio Denarium, governor of Roraima state.

Bolsonaro blamed international interference for hampering growth in the region.

“A large part of the money comes from outside Brazil, and that has a price,” he said. He noted the demarcation of indigenous lands and protected areas.

“Indians don’t lobby, they don’t speak our language, but they are able to get 14 percent of our national territory,” he said.

But several governors pleaded with Bolsonaro to reconcile with the international community.

“If Brazil isolates itself internationally, it exposes itself to very serious sanctions,” said Flávio Dino, the governor of Maranhao state. “A defense of Brazilian sovereignty, a defense of Brazilian business demands dialogue with other countries.”

He urged the administration to accept aid offered to Brazil.

“Public finances as you know are very depreciated,” he said. “We cannot tear up money, because tearing up money would not be sensible in the current context.”

In Rio de Janeiro, where a majority voted for Bolsonaro in last year’s presidential election, some were reconsidering their choice Tuesday.

Valerie Ottoni, a security worker at the Santos Dumont Airport, said she voted for Bolsonaro because he seemed willing to take on the corruption and crime plaguing the country.

“He appeared like a hero to Brazil, but now we’re thinking of all the things he’s doing,” said Ottoni, 51. “We shouldn’t be closed to international alarms. We’re not stupid. This will be difficult for him to take this decision.”

Others were sure Bolsonaro knew what was best for the Amazon and Brazil. Some perceived ulterior motives in the G-7 offer.

“It’s not to help,” said Fabiama Lobo, 39, who works at a jewelry store. “It’s to get the forest’s resources. They want the resources.”

Micheul Feliciano, 30, agreed that other countries are coveting what Brazil has. But he didn’t think it should stop Bolsonaro from accepting aid — not with the stakes this high.

“The forest is more important than all of this,” he said.

Seven Brazilian states have called on the army for help with the fires. On Saturday, the Defense Ministry announced 44,000 soldiers were ready to deploy to fight the fires in the Amazon, an area that spans 61 percent of the country, or more than 2 million square miles.

McCoy reported from Rio de Janeiro.

a herd of sheep standing on top of a dirt field: Brazilian farmer Helio Lombardo Do Santos and a dog walk through a burnt area of the Amazon rainforest, near Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil, on August 26, 2019. © Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images Brazilian farmer Helio Lombardo Do Santos and a dog walk through a burnt area of the Amazon rainforest, near Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil, on August 26, 2019.

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