The Slatest

Brazil Deploys Troops to Fight Amazon Fires After International Outcry

Aerial picture showing smoke from a two-kilometre-long stretch of fire billowing from the Amazon rainforest about 65 km from Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia, in northern Brazil, on August 23, 2019.
Aerial picture showing smoke from a two-kilometre-long stretch of fire billowing from the Amazon rainforest about 65 km from Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia, in northern Brazil, on August 23, 2019.
CARL DE SOUZA/Getty Images

Brazil called up its military to combat fires that are raging in the Amazon after international protests over the government’s seeming unwillingness to act in the face of an environmental disaster. Around 44,000 troops and military aircraft will be made available for what has been described as an “unprecedented” effort to fight fires in at least six Brazilian states. It remains unclear how many of those troops will be put on the line to combat the forest fires.

Although fires are common this time of year, they are more widespread. So far nearly 77,000 wildfires have been reported across the country this year, which marked an 85 percent increase from the same period last year. And while the fires have been burning for weeks, the international outcry grew this week as photographs spread on social media. Protests took place in Brazil and across the world Friday and Saturday demanding that the Brazilian government take action.

People protest against the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over the fires in the Amazon rainforest in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on August 23, 2019.
People protest against the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over the fires in the Amazon rainforest in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on August 23, 2019.
NELSON ALMEIDA/Getty Images

Much of the attention has focused on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a long-time critic of the country’s environmental regulations who had tried to minimize the effects of the fires. Yet his tune appeared to change after leaders in Europe said a major trade deal could be at risk and many on social media started calling for a boycott of Brazilian products. Bolsonaro approved the involvement of the military to help put out fires in a televised speech Friday in which he claimed his government would have “zero tolerance” for environmental crimes. “Protecting the rain forest is our duty,” he said. That was quite a change in tune for a president who had previously described environmental protections as an impediment for economic growth and had blamed non-governmental organizations of starting the fires.

Yet despite the new found sense of urgency, some are skeptical that the involvement of the military would really be able to do much. “Once you have a huge forest fire like that, especially when you don’t have all the kind of forest fire-fighting equipment that you have in places like the U.S. or Portugal, it’s difficult to extinguish,” Alfredo Sirkis, executive director of Brazil Climate Center, a think tank, said. “They’ll only be extinguished by themselves depending on the weather conditions.” It was clear though that deploying the military was also in part a public relations ploy. A military leader, for example, said that part of its mission involved creating “a positive perception of the country.”

As attention focused on the fires burning in the Amazon, it became clear that Europeans have taken the role as the global leaders in the fight against climate change, notes the New York Times. As European leaders, led by French President Emanuel Macron, criticized Brazil for its inaction, President Donald Trump waited until Friday evening to say that the United States was willing to help only to add that “future trade prospects” with Brazil “are very exciting.”