The Brazilian military is deploying troops to the Amazon to fight the massive wildfires that have swept the region and sparked an international outcry.
Brazil’s defense minister has said that some 44,000 troops will be available for “unprecedented” operations to put out the fires, and forces are heading to six Brazilian states that asked for federal help. The states are Roraima, Rondonia, Tocantins, Para, Acre and Mato Grosso.
“The protection of the forest is our duty,” Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro said in a televised address Friday. “We are aware of that and will act to combat deforestation and criminal activities that put people at risk in the Amazon. We are a government of zero tolerance for crime, and in the environmental field it will not be different.”
The military’s first mission will be carried out by 700 troops around Porto Velho, capital of Rondonia, Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo said. The military will use two C-130 Hercules aircraft capable of dumping up to 12,000 liters (3,170 gallons) of water on fires, he said.
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“It shows the concern of Bolsonaro’s government about this issue,” Azevedo said. “It was a very fast response.”
An Associated Press journalist flying over the Porto Velho region Saturday morning reported hazy conditions and low visibility. On Friday, the reporter saw many already deforested areas that were burned, apparently by people clearing farmland, as well as a large column of smoke billowing from one fire.
The municipality of Nova Santa Helena in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state was also hard-hit. Trucks were seen driving along a highway Friday as fires blazed and embers smoldered in adjacent fields.
Azevedo noted a tweet from President Trump in which the American leader where he offered to help Brazil fight the fires but added that Brazilia and Washington had no further communication on the subject.
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Even so, the U.S. has already started to help fight the massive wildfires. A Boeing 747-400 Global SuperTanker firefighting plane carrying nearly 20,000 of retardant, a substance used to stop fires, arrived at the Bolivia-Brazil border from California Friday.
Bolsonaro has previously described rainforest protections as an obstacle to Brazil’s economic development, sparring with critics who say the Amazon absorbs vast amounts of greenhouse gasses and is crucial for efforts to contain climate change.
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The Amazon fires have become a global issue, escalating tensions between Brazil and European countries who believe Bolsonaro has neglected commitments to protect biodiversity. Protesters gathered outside Brazilian diplomatic missions in European and Latin American cities Friday, and demonstrators also marched in Brazil.
The dispute spilled into the economic arena when French President Emmanuel Macron threatened to block a European Union trade deal with Brazil and several other South American countries. He wants Group of Seven leaders meeting at a summit in France this weekend to discuss the Amazon crisis.
“First we need to help Brazil and other countries put out these fires,” Macron said Saturday.
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The goal is to “preserve this forest that we all need because it is a treasure of our biodiversity and our climate thanks to the oxygen that it emits and thanks to the carbon it absorbs,” he said.
Bolivia has also struggled to contain fires that swept through woods and fields. The government of Bolivian President Evo Morales has backed the increased cultivation of crops for biofuel production, raising questions about whether the policy opened the way to increased burning. The Bolivian government says 3,680 square miles have been burned this year.
On Saturday, several helicopters along with police, military troops, firefighters and volunteers on the ground worked to extinguish fires in Bolivia’s Chiquitanía region, where the woods are dry at this time of year.
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Similarly, Bolsonaro had said he wants to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms. Brazilian prosecutors are investigating whether lax enforcement of environmental regulations may have contributed to the surge in the number of fires.
Fires are common in Brazil in the annual dry season, but they are much more widespread this year. Brazilian state experts reported nearly 77,000 wildfires across the country so far this year, up 85% over the same period in 2018. More than half of those fires occurred in the Amazon region.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.