This Aug. 15, 2019 satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows closeup view of a fire southwest of Porto Velho Brazil. Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, a federal agency monitoring deforestation and wildfires, said the country has seen a record number of wildfires this year as of Tuesday, Aug. 20. (Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies via AP)

France threatens economic retaliation over Amazon fires

August 23, 2019 - 3:19 pm

BIARRITZ, France (AP) — In a sharp escalation of tensions over fires ravaging the Amazon, France on Friday accused Brazil's president of having lied to French leader Emmanuel Macron and threatened to block a European Union trade deal with South American states including Brazil.

Ireland joined in the threat of possible economic repercussions for Brazil and its South American neighbors, starkly illustrating how the Amazon is becoming a battleground between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and increasingly critical governments alarmed that vast swathes of the rainforest are going up in smoke.

Having won support from other governments, but infuriated Bolsonaro, by putting the Amazon wildfires on the radar of world leaders gathering for a Group of Seven summit in France, Macron then further upped the stakes and the pressure with a bluntly-worded statement from his office Friday that took direct aim at Bolsonaro's trustworthiness.

"In light of Brazil's attitude these recent weeks," the statement said, Macron "can only conclude that President Bolsonaro lied to him during the Osaka Summit" in June where governments agreed on the "urgent need" to tackle climate change, pollution and environmental destruction.

"The decisions and statements from Brazil these recent weeks show clearly that President Bolsonaro has decided to not respect his commitments on the climate, nor to involve himself on the issue of biodiversity."

As a consequence, France now opposes an EU trade deal "in its current state" with the Mercosur bloc of South American nations that includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar also said "there is no way that Ireland will vote" for the deal "if Brazil does not honor its environmental commitments."

The tariff-slashing deal was billed as the EU's largest ever trade agreement when struck in June. The deal also re-committed Mercosur nations to the Paris climate accord aimed at limiting global warming, which included pledged Brazilian action to stop illegal deforestation in the Amazon.

Macron first raised the alarm over the Amazon with a tweet Thursday saying: "Our house is burning. Literally." He asked that the Amazon fires be added to the agenda of the G-7 summit of world leaders that he's hosting this weekend, and quickly found backing from Germany, the EU and others.

Prime Minister Antii Rinne of Finland, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, described himself as "truly worried about the attitude Brazil seems to have adopted right now regarding its own forests" and called the Amazon fires "a threat to our whole planet, not just to Brazil or South America."

Unusually, politicians found themselves on the same page as sports superstars, who used their global social media followings to also call for action to preserve the rainforest.

Soccer's five-time world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo tweeted a widely cited figure that climate scientists say far overstates the actual oxygen produced by the rainforest: "The Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20% of the world's oxygen and it's been burning for the past 3 weeks. It's our responsibility to help to save our planet."

Other soccer stars chimed in, too — unusual in the sport whose professionals are often reluctant to express views about off-pitch issues.

Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe, a World Cup winner with France, tweeted a composite photo of rainforest in the shape of human lungs , lush and green on one side, consumed by flames on the other, and the words: "Pray for Amazonia."

And from the world of tennis came a straight-to-the point tweet from top-ranked Novak Djokovic. "Heartbreaking," the winner of 16 majors wrote above a photo of forests aflame.

But Bolsonaro bristled.

The Brazilian leader accused Macron of sensationalism and of seeking "personal political gains in an internal matter for Brazil and other Amazonian countries." Brazil contains about 60% of the Amazon rainforest.

Even if Amazon nations did seek help in fighting the fires, there may not be much that European governments could quickly offer in the way of material assistance.

Amphibious planes widely used in Europe to dump water and retardants on wildfires don't have the range to cross the Atlantic Ocean, Col. Grégory Allione, head of France's national federation of firefighters, told The Associated Press.

Larger, land-based fire-fighting planes could only reach the Amazon from Europe via a circuitous route over Greenland, North and Central America, which "would take an eternity," he said.

And European governments might not have much firefighting expertise and manpower to spare after another scorching European summer that saw record heat waves and left many areas of Europe tinder-dry, another consequence of climate change.

"We're already very busy," Allione said. "We've always had fires but now we have giant infernos."

Environmental campaigners said longer-term solutions were needed to preserve the Amazon. Some have accused Macron of hypocrisy, arguing that while he's adept at using Twitter to position himself as a champion for the planet, his domestic record on green issues is spotty at best. His first environment minister quit abruptly, frustrated by the slow progress fighting climate change and other environmental problems under Macron's government.

"Both inequalities and climate change are two fires on the planet, on the humanity. They are big threats for us all," said Cecile Duflot, head of Oxfam France and another former minister of Macron's. "What happens in the Amazon of course hurts us, but this is not a coincidence. It is a political choice made by Bolsonaro to destroy nature, to support those who are destroying nature, so we must absolutely act together in a concerted, determined and diplomatic way together with the local population who are living this as an absolute disaster."

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John Leicester reported from Paris.

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