Brazil’s Bolsonaro open to foreign aid to fight Amazon fires

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Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is willing to accept foreign aid for fighting fires devastating the Amazon rainforest, but only if the country controls the funds, his spokesman said Tuesday.

The announcement suggests Bolsonaro has dropped an earlier demand that French President Emmanuel Macron withdraw “insults” made against him before he would accept a G7 offer to help put out the fires in the world’s largest rainforest.

“The Brazilian government through President Bolsonaro is open to receiving financial support from organizations and even countries,” Otavio Rego Barros told reporters in the capital Brasilia, without referring specifically to the G7’s offer.

“The essential point is that this money, on entering Brazil, will be under the control of the Brazilian people.”

Bolsonaro has been involved in an escalating war of words with Macron over the worst fires to hit the Amazon in years – blazes that have sparked a global outcry and threatened to torpedo a huge trade deal between the European Union and South American countries.

A top Brazilian official on Monday rejected the G7 countries’ offer of $20 million to combat the fires devastating the forest in Brazil and Bolivia, saying Macron should take care of “his home and his colonies.”

“Mr Macron must withdraw the insults he made against me,” Bolsonaro told reporters in the capital Brasilia earlier Tuesday.

“To talk or accept anything from France, with the best possible intentions, he has to withdraw these words, and from there we can talk.”

Macron and Bolsonaro have repeatedly locked horns in the past week, with the French leader accusing Bolsonaro of lying to him about his commitments on climate change and vowing to block the EU-Mercosur trade deal involving Brazil that took decades to negotiate.

On Monday, Macron rebuked the “extraordinarily rude” Bolsonaro after the Brazilian leader personally expressed approval for a Facebook post implying that Brigitte Macron was not as attractive as his own first lady, Michelle Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro has hit back, accusing Macron of treating Brazil like “a colony or no-man’s land.”

The latest official figures show 1,659 new fires were started in Brazil between Sunday and Monday, taking the total this year to 82,285 — the highest since at least 2013 — even as military aircraft and troops help battle the blazes.

More than half of the fires are in the massive Amazon basin.

The governors of several states in the Amazon told Bolsonaro in a meeting Tuesday that international help was needed.

Their plea comes after Norway and Germany halted around $70 million in Amazon protection subsidies earlier this month.

Bolsonaro — a climate-change skeptic – has faced criticism at home over his delayed response to the fires, and thousands have protested in Brazil in recent days to denounce the destruction.

But US President Donald Trump tweeted that the Brazilian leader was “working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil – Not easy.”

In response, Bolsonaro replied: “We’re fighting the wildfires with great success. Brazil is and will always be an international reference in sustainable development.”

“The fake news campaign built against our sovereignty will not work. The US can always count on Brazil.”

In the hard-hit northwestern state of Rondonia, thick smoke has choked the capital Porto Velho in recent days as fires blacken swaths of the rainforest.

Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva on Monday said the fires were “under control.”

“It has been exaggerated a little that the situation was out of control – it wasn’t,” he said. “The situation isn’t simple but it is under control.”

Nearly 2,500 troops and 15 aircraft, including two C-130 Hercules, have been deployed, according to the defense ministry, which has published satellite data it says show a reduction in the number of fires in the nine states spanning the Amazon.

More than 43,000 troops were available to help put out fires, the government said previously.

Rain in some of the affected areas is also helping.

Experts say increased land clearing during the months-long dry season to make way for crops or grazing has aggravated the recurring problem this year.

Although about 60 percent of the Amazon is in Brazil, the vast forest also spreads over parts of eight other countries or territories, including the French overseas territory of Guiana on the continent’s northeast coast.

Bolivia’s leftist President Evo Morales on Tuesday gave a half-hearted welcome to the G7 aid pledge, which he described as “tiny.”

Morales and his rival for the Bolivian presidency have suspended campaigning to deal with the voracious fires that the president said had destroyed 1.2 million hectares, or more than 4,000 square miles, of forest and grassland since May.