Brazil’s far-right president and his backers have escalated their row over the Amazon with Emmanuel Macron, attacking the French president’s “lamentable colonialist stance” as fires continued to rage in the world’s biggest rainforest.
As Brazil said it would reject a $20m (£16m) G7 contribution to fight the fires, Jair Bolsonaro spurned Macron’s criticism of his environmental record and flaunted Donald Trump’s support for his far-right administration.
“We have nothing against the G7. We have something against one of the G7’s presidents,” Bolsonaro told a summit of governors from the nine states that make up the Brazilian Amazon.
Brazil’s leader said he had been cheered by an earlier tweet in which the US president said Bolsonaro was “working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil”.
Bolsonaro responded tweeting: “Thank you, President Trump. We’re fighting the wildfires with great success. The fake news campaign built against our sovereignty will not work.”
Macron has been less kind to Bolsonaro, a rightwing nationalist who campaigners accuse of greenlighting a new era of environmental destruction and being partly responsible for the scale of this year’s Amazon burning season.
Last week, Macron sparked a diplomatic skirmish with Bolsonaro when he called for emergency talks on the Amazon at the G7 summit – a move Bolsonaro responded to by mocking the appearance of Brigitte Macron, France’s first lady, on Facebook.
On Monday, Macron lamented Bolsonaro’s “extraordinarily rude” attack on his wife and said he hoped Brazil would soon have a leader worthier of the office.
Bolsonaro and his backers hit back on Tuesday. Bolsonaro condemned what he described as Macron’s meddling in Brazilian affairs and insisted he would only consider the G7’s Amazon aid package if Macron withdrew his “insults”.
Gen Augusto Heleno, Bolsonaro’s hawkish institutional security chief, took a particularly hard line, lambasting “Macron’s lamentable colonialist stance”.
“Ninety percent of [former] French colonies are in a deplorable state,” Heleno, the former head of the Brazil-led United Nations stabilization mission in Haiti, told the gathering of governors.
“Wherever they went they left a trail of destruction, chaos and misery. They shouldn’t be giving anyone advice. This is a joke.”
Mauro Mendes, the governor of the Amazon state of Mato Grosso, accused Macron of “surfing on the ashes” of the Amazon conflagration for political and economic purposes.
“Macron isn’t worried about our environment. He’s worried about creating mechanisms to introduce possible barriers [to Brazilian products],” Mendes claimed.
The Amazon assembly in Brasília was convened to discuss responses to the blaze currently sweeping through swaths of the region.
But Bolsonaro used the encounter to repeatedly pillory environmentalists and what he called the “psychotic” demarcation of indigenous reserves, claiming both had hamstrung Brazil’s economy.
He said: “This environmental question has to be dealt with rationally and not with the almost savagery that it has been throughout previous governments. We cannot allow a country as rich as ours to be in the situation it find itself in.” He vowed to “take the decisions that need to be taken” to turbo-charge development of the Amazon.
Bolsonaro insinuated that indigenous reserves had been created by previous governments as part of a foreign conspiracy designed to hinder Brazil’s economic development.
He complained: “Indians don’t do lobbying. They don’t speak our language. And somehow they’ve ended up with 14% of our national territory.”
He added: “One of the aims is to make us unworkable.”
Bolsonaro also accused Brazilian journalists of waging a “a massive, anti-patriotic, sell-out campaign” against his government by reporting on the Amazon fires.
Many of the Amazon governors cheered Bolsonaro’s vision.
The governor of Rondônia state, Bolsonaro ally Marcos Rocha, said: “We have always had presidents who thought about environmental protection. Today, we have a president who thinks about protection but who puts human development first.”
But there was also pushback.
Mendes, the governor of Mato Grosso state said he was “very worried” about how Brazilian farmers might be affected by the negative international reaction to the crisis.
“Sixty percent of our GDP comes from our exports,” Mendes noted.
The governor of Pará, Helder Barbalho, cautioned against spurning foreign aid mechanisms such as the Amazon Fund – to which Norway and Germany recently suspended contributions because of Bolsonaro’s environmental policies.
Barbalho warned that Bolsonaro’s clash with Macron was a distraction when Brazil should be attempting to avoid a costly boycott of Brazilian products.
He said: “I think we are wasting too much time on Macron. We should take care of our own country and get on with our own lives. we should be taking care of our own problems and showing our environment diplomacy to the world, which is essential to agribusiness.”
Flávio Dino, the Communist party governor of Maranhão, also opposed rejecting much-needed international support for environmental protection.
“We cannot tear up money – tearing up money is not sensible,” said Dino, a staunch Bolsonaro critic who has described the Brazilian president as the “insane” leader of a “minority sect”.
Dino also warned against the “satanization” of environmental NGOs, which Bolsonaro has vowed to expel from the Amazon and accused, without evidence, of starting this year’s fires.
“It isn’t by setting NGOs on fire that we are going to save the Amazon,” Dino warned, urging Bolsonaro to show “moderation”.