BRASILIA/RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday accused non-governmental organizations of burning down the Amazon rainforest to hurt his government, as a growing global outcry against the wildfires raged through social media.
Presented without evidence and disputed by environmental and climate experts, Bolsonaro's comments enraged critics and fanned a growing social media campaign over the dangers to the Amazon, one of the world's key bulwarks against climate change.
#PrayforAmazonas was the world's top trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday, and millions of people took to Instagram and Facebook to share concerns over the future of the Amazon. With global awareness growing, Bolsonaro's comments risk creating a spiraling crisis for his government, imperiling an EU-Mercosur trade pact and upsetting key agribusiness clients.
"Everything indicates" that NGOs were going to the Amazon to "set fire" to the forest, Bolsonaro said in a Facebook Live broadcast on Wednesday morning. When asked if he had evidence to back up his claims, he said he had "no written plan," adding "that's not how it's done."
The former army captain turned politician said the slashing of NGO funding by his government could be a motive.
"Crime exists," he said. "These people are missing the money."
Bolsonaro said his administration was working to control the Amazon fires, which have reached a record number this year. Brazil's space research center, INPE, has detected 72,843 fires so far in 2019, an 83% increase on the same period in 2018.
Environmental and climate experts labeled his claims that NGOs were responsible a "smoke screen" to hide his government's dismantling of protections for the world's largest tropical rainforest. They said farmers clearing land were responsible for the uptick in fires.
"This is a sick statement, a pitiful statement," said Marcio Astrini, Greenpeace Brazil's public policy coordinator. "Increased deforestation and burning are the result of his anti-environmental policy."
Bolsonaro, a longtime skeptic of environmental concerns, wants to open the Amazon to more agriculture and mining, and has told other countries worried about rising deforestation under his watch to mind their own business.
Congressman Nilto Tatto, leader of the lower house environment caucus, said Bolsonaro's "stunning" attack on NGOs was an attempt to obscure his administration's destruction of 30 years of Brazilian environmental protections.
Climate scientist Carlos Nobre said farmers seeking to clear land for cattle pastures wait for the dry season when forests become combustible and then set them alight. He attributed this year's spike to illegal deforestation since it has not been unusually dry.
"NGOs working in the Amazon do not use fire in farming. On the contrary, they encourage rural communities to avoid fire," said Nobre, senior researcher at Sao Paulo University's Institute for Advanced Studies.
Former presidential candidate and environment minister Marina Silva took to Twitter to criticize Bolsonaro.
"The Amazon is on fire," she wrote. "The president says NGOs may be behind this. The lack of commitment to the truth is a chronic pathology. This irresponsible attitude only aggravates an environmental disaster in Brazil."
Speaking later on Wednesday, Bolsonaro also took aim at the Paris climate accord, saying that if it were so good, the United States would have stayed in it. But he added that for the time being, Brazil would remain in the pact.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned in June he would not sign the EU-Mercosur trade treaty if Bolsonaro pulled Brazil out of the Paris accord.
Earlier this month, Norway and Germany suspended funding for projects to curb deforestation in Brazil after becoming alarmed by changes to the way projects were selected under Bolsonaro.