Amid Mixed Messaging, Brazil's Bolsonaro Sends Troops To Fight Amazon Fires

Aug 24, 2019
Originally published on August 24, 2019 3:17 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, is responding to the worldwide wave of anger over the fires raging in the Amazon. The retired army captain is turning to the military. At least 44,000 troops are being made available to tackle the fires. NPR's Philip Reeves says lots of other Brazilians are also mobilizing as demonstrators who are taking to the streets to voice their dismay about the destruction in the rainforest.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Bolsonaro is facing a major environmental and diplomatic disaster. He's finally decided to act.

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BRAZIL JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Protecting the rainforest is our duty," Bolsonaro said in a TV address.

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BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He confirmed he's authorized the use of troops. These will be used to act against people illegally starting fires to clear land in the forest and also to combat the fires themselves. Brazil has nine states in the Amazon. By law, these must file a request before armed forces can actually be deployed. Some have already done so. Bolsonaro hopes this damage-limitation operation will dampen the fires themselves and, also, the international anger that's corroding Brazil's image and could badly impact trade. Germany's Angela Merkel is the latest to join the chorus of world leaders expressing alarm. She says the Group of Seven leaders meeting in France right now cannot be silent about the destruction in the rainforest. Her view is shared here on the streets of Brazil.

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LAILA IGLESIAS: I am ashamed. I'm very ashamed.

REEVES: Laila Iglesias is a biology student, aged 19.

IGLESIAS: It's a pity, too. I don't know why this is happening.

REEVES: She's one of several thousand people who gathered in downtown Rio de Janeiro, yesterday, to protest the fires in the Amazon and the government's response.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

REEVES: The protesters have banners calling on the world to help and on Bolsonaro to go. There are dozens of other demonstrations like this around Brazil this weekend and in cities around the world. Bolsonaro argues that the Amazon belongs to Brazil. He believes the international community shouldn't interfere. On the contrary, says Roni Lima (ph), another protester.

RONI LIMA: We need more and more pressure. If people from France, United States, from all over the world say with us, let's preserve the Amazon, we need this.

REEVES: The number of fires this year in Brazil has now risen above 76,000, according to Brazil's National Institute of Space Research, more than half of them in the Amazon. Environmentalists say most of these fires are caused by cattle ranchers and farmers illegally clearing land. Bolsonaro caused astonishment, recently, by suggesting environmental advocacy groups could be setting fires in the forest. He's now admitted some are caused by farmers. In his TV address, Bolsonaro said his government has zero tolerance for criminality and promised to crack down.

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BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He also blamed hot, dry weather, complained about fake news and indicated that he thinks the scale of the fires is being exaggerated. Many in Brazil and beyond say the main culprit is Bolsonaro himself. They say he's encouraged people to set fires by weakening environmental law enforcement and vowing to exploit the Amazon's mineral and agricultural wealth.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Among the demonstrators in Rio is Ingrid Vieira, a singer. She's angry about what's happening but not at all surprised.

INGRID VIEIRA: We knew. We - the ones who always knew who Bolsonaro was. We always knew that he was going to do this to the Amazon. We knew this was going to happen. So it's really, really serious - what's going on.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.