Amazon fires: Brazil will only take G7 aid if Macron ‘withdraws insults’, Bolsonaro says

Two leaders have become embroiled in a deeply personal war of words, including Mr Bolsonaro insulting Mr Macron’s wife

Phoebe Weston
Science Correspondent
Tuesday 27 August 2019 15:12 BST
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Emmanuel Macron hits back at Jair Bolsonaro for insulting wife's looks

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has said his country will only accept $20m (£16.3m) in aid pledged by G7 countries to tackle the wildfires in the Amazon if Emmanuel Macron “withdraws his insults”.

Mr Bolsonaro said the French president had called him a liar and accused him of questioning Brazil’s sovereignty amid tensions over the response to the fires sweeping the region. The offer of aid came after G7 leaders, meeting in the southern French town of Biarritz, discussed the fires ravaging the world’s largest tropical rainforest, which is often dubbed “the lungs of the world”.

“First of all, Macron has to take back his insults of me. He called me a liar. Once he does that, then we can talk,” Mr Bolsonaro told reporters in Brasilia. The two presidents have become embroiled in a deeply personal war of words in recent days, including Mr Bolsonaro insulting Mr Macron’s wife on social media. Mr Macron called the comments “extraordinarily rude”.

Different members of Mr Bolsonaro’s cabinet have taken differing positions on the offer. His chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, had suggested to the G1 news website that Brazil would reject the offer saying: “We appreciate [the offer], but maybe those resources are more relevant to reforest Europe.” But his environment minister, Ricardo Salles called the aid “welcome”. Mr Bolsonaro himself had initially said after the fires started to make international headlines that his nation did not have the resources to fight the blazes.

The spat between Mr Bolsonaro and Mr Macron had been building throughout the G7 summit. The French president had sought to build international consensus for action, amid tensions with Mr Bolsonaro’s policies that prioritise economic growth even if it comes at the expense of the rainforest. Mr Bolsonaro accused Mr Macron of adopting a “colonialist” mindset at the G7 summit. In return, Mr Macron questioned the Brazilian president’s trustworthiness and commitment to protecting biodiversity.

On Tuesday, Mr Macron said the Brazilian president was wrong to see the G7 donation as “colonial”. He said: “We would happily accept international solidarity, it’s a sign of friendship.”

He said the money was not just aimed at Brazil but at nine countries in the Amazon region, including Colombia and Bolivia. He added that France too considers itself an Amazon country via its overseas region of French Guiana.

Over the weekend, a post on Mr Bolsonaro’s Facebook page had a comment from a user that insulted the French first lady, by comparing her appearance with that of the Brazilian president’s wife, implying that the younger woman was more attractive.

The supporter suggested Mr Macron was jealous, and that that was why he was “persecuting” the Brazilian leader. Mr Bolsonaro hit “like” on the post, writing: “Don’t humiliate the guy... ha ha.”

When asked for his response, Mr Macron said: “He has made some extraordinarily rude comments about my wife.

“What can I tell you? It’s sad. It’s sad for him and for Brazilians. I think that Brazilian women are probably ashamed to read that their president has done that.”

“I think that Brazilians, a great people, are a bit ashamed of this behaviour,” the French president added. “As I have a lot of friendship and respect for the Brazilian people, I hope that they will quickly have a president who is up to the job.”

Mr Bolsonaro had missed a scheduled meeting with the French foreign minister in favour of a barber’s appointment.

During his speech on Tuesday, Mr Macron sought to play down the claims from Mr Bolsonaro that France was interfering in the affairs of his nation. “We respect your sovereignty. It’s your country,” the French president said.

“The Amazon forest is a subject for the whole planet. We can help you reforest. We can find the means for your economic development that respects the natural balance,” he added. “But we cannot allow you to destroy everything.”

Speaking on French TV, Mr Macron also acknowledged that Europe, by importing soya from Brazil, is not entirely without blame for the agricultural pressure on the rainforest, saying: “We are partly complicit.”

The number of blazes recorded across the Brazilian Amazon has risen 79 per cent this year, according to Brazil’s space research agency. The fires are not limited to Brazil, with at least 10,000 square kilometres (about 3,800 square miles) burning in Bolivia, near its border with Paraguay and Brazil.

Brazil is at the epicentre of the blazes, which Mr Bolsonaro has blamed on environmentalists, non-government organisations and the weather. He has provided no evidence for his claims that activists have started the fires after Brazil’s government removed funding for many groups. Mr Bolsonaro has also claimed fires in the Amazon were more prevalent under previous left-wing governments.

In violating environmental agreements, Brazil has been discredited and “unable to exercise any type of leadership on the international stage,” said Mauricio Santoro, an international relations professor at Rio de Janeiro State University.

Under increasing international pressure, Mr Bolsonaro has said he might visit the Amazon region this week to check on firefighting efforts and that 44,000 troops would be available to fight the blazes. However, there have been few signs of a major military presence according to those in the Amazon and many critics believe that the Brazilian president is merely fearful of a diplomatic crisis and economic losses.

Meanwhile, despite the international attention on the Amazon given its significance, it has emerged an even greater number of fires are currently burning in central Africa.

Data from Nasa’s Fire Information for Resource Management System, shows at least 6,902 fires in Angola and 3,395 burning in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The same data puts Brazil’s fires at 2,127. In Africa however, the extent of the fires affecting forested areas is unclear.

Additional reporting by agencies

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