SALVADOR, Brazil — Paris and the United Nations called on Thursday for the protection of the fire-plagued Amazon rainforest as Brazil's right-wing president accused his French counterpart of having a "colonialist mentality" over the issue.
Official figures show nearly 73,000 forest fires were recorded in Brazil in the first eight months of the year -- the highest number for any year since 2013. Most were in the Amazon.
The extent of the area damaged by fires has yet to be determined, but smoke has choked Sao Paulo and several other Brazilian cities in the past week.
UN chief Antonio Guterres said he was "deeply concerned" by the fires.
"In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity," he said on Twitter.
"The Amazon must be protected."
France's President Emmanuel Macron said the wildfires were "an international crisis" and called on the globe's most industrialised nations to address it at their summit this weekend.
"Our house is on fire. Literally. The Amazon, the lung of our planet which produces 20 per cent of our oxygen, is burning," Macron said on Twitter.
"It is an international crisis. Members of the G7, let's talk in two days about this emergency."
That did not sit well with Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro.
"The French president's suggestion that Amazon issues be discussed at the G-7 without participation by the countries in the region evokes a colonialist mentality that is out of place in the 21st century," Bolsonaro wrote on Twitter.
Neighbouring Peru, which contains much of the Amazon basin, announced it was "on alert" for wildfires spreading from the rainforest in Brazil and Bolivia.
Paraguay and Bolivia are battling separate wildfires that have devastated large areas of their rainforests.
Environmental specialists say the fires have accompanied a rapid rate of deforestation in the Amazon region, which in July quadrupled compared to the same month in 2018, according to data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
Bolsonaro instead attributes the fires to increased drought, and accuses environmental groups and NGOs of whipping up an "environmental psychosis" to harm Brazil's economic interests.
"This environmental psychosis lets you do nothing," the president lamented, adding that it was hampering the country's development.
"I don't want to finish the environment, I want to save Brazil," said Bolsonaro, a climate change skeptic who had advocated opening up tribal lands and protected areas to farming and mining interests since assuming office in January.
Bolsonaro's comments come as Brazil hosts a UN regional meeting on climate change in the northeastern city of Salvador ahead of December's summit in Chile.
A senior Brazilian official defended Brazil's environmental policy at the conference and said it complied with the Paris Agreement against global warming.
"We are teaching the world how to produce. In only 29 per cent of our territory we produce food for everyone.
"Worldwide, the average land use for agriculture exceeds 50 per cent – we only use 29 per cent," said Roberto Castelo, an environment ministry official who was roundly booed by greens at the conference.
Not 'Captain Nero'
"I do not defend the burnings, because there always was and always will be burnings. Unfortunately, this has always happened in the Amazon," Bolsonaro said, referring to dry season, land-clearing fires.
"But accusing me of being a Captain Nero setting fire to things is irresponsible. It is campaigning against Brazil," the president told reporters outside his Brasilia residence.
The reference to Captain Nero appeared to be to the Roman emperor said to have fiddled while Rome burned. Bolsonaro is a former army captain.
Forest fires tend to intensify during the dry season, which usually ends in late October or early November, as land is cleared to make way for crops or grazing. — AFP