BRASILIA/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said on Wednesday he would meet with other South American countries to set common policy for defending the Amazon rain forest, while his foreign minister told Reuters the nation should be seen as an environmental hero.
In an indication that Bolsonaro, a far-right conservative, is forging closer ties with neighboring countries than with European nations, he accepted Chile’s offer of four aircraft to help fight the fires sweeping through the world’s largest rain forest.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera in Brasilia, Bolsonaro said a meeting with regional neighbors except Venezuela to discuss the Amazon would be held on Sept. 6 in Leticia, Colombia.
In a statement, the two leaders said environmental challenges must be met while respecting “national sovereignty.” Each country, it added, should have control over the “rational and sustainable use of their natural resources, in line with their environmental obligations and needs of their citizens, including indigenous peoples.”
Pinera, who has a close relationship with Bolsonaro, is an increasingly important figure in the environmental crisis triggered by the Amazon fires, and visited Brasilia on his return from a G7 summit in France where he attended as the rotating representative for Latin America.
Chile will hold the COP25 climate summit in December, having taken it over from the original host, Brazil, after Bolsonaro was elected.
Following a meeting with Paraguayan President Mario Abdo later on Wednesday, Pinera spoke of the need to build out regionwide infrastructure to fight increasingly prevalent forest fires in South America. Pinera said new regional bloc Prosur could contribute to the effort.
Bolsonaro waded back into a spat with France, saying Brazil’s sovereignty had “no price, not even $20 trillion,” a reference to an offer of $20 million aid announced by French President Emmanuel Macron at the Group of Seven summit of wealthy nations over the weekend. Bolsonaro dismissed the offer as an insulting attempt to “buy” Brazil’s sovereignty.
Macron has accused Bolsonaro, a longtime skeptic of environmental concerns, of lying about climate change.
“Only after it (the French government) has recanted what it said about my person, which represents Brazil ... can we talk again,” Bolsonaro said.
In an interview with Reuters, Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo said the country supported Bolsonaro in his dispute with Macron.
He also said that Brazil was fighting forest fires like never before and that he hoped “people who legitimately care about the environment see that Brazil is the hero and not the villain.”
A Reuters report on Wednesday found that Bolsonaro’s government had weakened the federal agency charged with protecting the rain forest through budget cuts, restrictions on destroying equipment used in environmental crime, and the sidelining of an elite force of enforcement agents.
Brazil’s federal government is preparing a presidential decree forbidding fires to clear land in the country during the dry season, the presidency said on Wednesday.
According to one source, Bolsonaro had already agreed to the main terms of the decree.
Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, 44, was admitted to a hospital unit on Tuesday after complaining of feeling unwell.
The Armed Forces Hospital in Brasilia said on Wednesday that the minister was given the all-clear after some medical tests and told to rest for five days.
Reporting by Jamie McGeever and Lisandra Paraguassu; Additional reporting by Aislinn Laing in Santiago and Daniela Desantis in Asuncion; Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer, Paul Simao and Peter Cooney