Jair Bolsonaro sends in army as pressure to halt Amazon fires mounts

World leaders have criticised Mr Bolsonaro's response to the crisis

A tract of Amazon jungle burns in Boca do Acre, Amazonas state, Brazil August 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly
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Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has authorised use of the military to battle blazes ripping through parts of the Amazon rainforest, seemingly bowing to international pressure to take action.

Forces began to deploy on Saturday to border areas, indigenous territories and other affected regions in the Amazon to assist in putting out fires for a month, according to a presidential decree signed on Friday.

The military will “act strongly” to control the wildfires, the former military officer promised as he signed the decree.

The armed forces will collaborate with public security and environmental protection agencies, the decree says.

“The protection of the forest is our duty,” the president said in a televised address on 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.”

Wildfires raging in the Amazon rainforest have hit a record number this year, with 72,843 fires detected so far by Brazil's space research centre INPE. Fires are an annual occurrence in the Amazon region, but this year has seen an uptick of 83 per cent.

Environmentalists blamed the jump on farmers clearing land for pasture.

Farmers may have had at least tacit encouragement from the firebrand right-wing president, who took power in January. On Wednesday, Mr Bolsonaro blamed non-governmental organisations for the fires.

World leaders have called for action to halt the inferno in the last week, but Mr Bolsonaro said they were using the issue as a political stick to beat him with.

France accused the far-right president of having lied to French leader Emmanuel Macron and threatened to block a European Union trade deal with several South American states, including Brazil. Ireland joined in the threat.

Germany’s Angela Merkel thought the fires as “shocking and threatening,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert said.

US President Donald Trump said his country was “ready to assist” in fighting the many fires across the area.

“Our future Trade prospects are very exciting and our relationship is strong, perhaps stronger than ever before,” Trump tweeted. “I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon Rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!”  All three world leaders and thier other G7 counterparts agreed to discuss the issue at the group's summit in Biarritz, which began on Saturday evening.

Mr Bolsonaro has previously described rainforest protections as an obstacle to Brazil’s economic development, sparring with critics who note that the Amazon produces vast amounts of oxygen and is considered crucial for efforts to contain climate change.

As the president spoke on Friday, thousands of Brazilians demonstrated in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and the capital of Brasilia demanding the government announce concrete actions to curb the fires. People also banged pots from their homes, a traditional mode of protest in South America.