World Politics

Brazil's president attacks Amazon rainforest 'lies' and thanks Trump for support

Key Points
  • Jair Bolsonaro told the U.N. that the Amazon "remains pristine and virtually untouched."
  • Data from Brazil's space agency show that the number of forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon between January and August surged by 84% from the same period in 2018.
  • Conservation groups have blamed illegal logging and criminal networks for the rainforest fires.
Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, speaks at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2019, in New York.
Ludovic Marin | AFP | Getty Images

Brazil is one of the best countries in the world at protecting its own environment and fires are not destroying the Amazon rainforest, the country's President Jair Bolsonaro claimed on Tuesday.

In an address to the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly, Bolsonaro said the Amazon "remains pristine and virtually untouched," claiming that this was evidence that Brazil is "one of the countries that protects its environment the most."

The Brazilian leader came under fire last month when it emerged that the Amazon rainforest was burning at a record rate. Data from Brazil's space agency showed that the number of forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon between January and August surged by 84% from the same period in 2018.

However, Bolsonaro played down the rate and impact of fires in the Amazon, claiming the situation had been overexaggerated by "sensationalist attacks" from the media.

He also claimed that the environmental relevance of the Amazon had been inflated and that the rainforest was not a global property.

"It is a fallacy to say that the Amazon is a heritage of humankind, and it is a misconception, as scientists claim, to say that our forest is the lungs of the world," Bolsonaro said.

The Brazilian leader has been criticized in the past for his skepticism toward climate change, as well as his prioritization of the economy over the environment. In April, he suggested Brazil may open a protected reserve in the Amazon to mining, saying in a televised address the country should "use the riches that God gave us."

Conservation groups have blamed illegal logging and criminal networks for surging rainforest fires, and claimed that the situation is getting worse under Bolsonaro's government, according to NBC News.

'Grateful' to Trump

Some nations, such as France, have suggested that Brazil should face economic consequences for failing to act to curb the fires — an idea that Bolsonaro lashed out against on Tuesday.

In a thinly-veiled attack on French President Emmanuel Macron, Bolsonaro said that some countries, instead of helping Brazil, had "followed the lies of the media and behaved disrespectfully, with a colonialist spirit."

"They have questioned what is most sacred to us — our sovereignty," he added. "One of them, at the last G-7 meeting, dared to suggest imposing sanctions against Brazil without even listening to us. I am grateful to those who have not accepted to carry out this absurd proposal."

In August, the two presidents became engaged in a public spat over the fires, with Macron accusing Bolsonaro of lying about his climate change commitments and threatening to veto an EU trade deal with Brazil as a consequence.

Bolsonaro accused the French leader of having a "colonialist mindset" at the time, after Macron condemned the fires. The French leader pledged $22 million from G-7 countries to help tackle the blazes — but Brazil rejected the funding.

In his U.N. address, Bolsonaro said he was "especially grateful" to U.S. President Donald Trump for supporting the Brazilian leader over the fires.

"(President Trump) well epitomized the spirit that must prevail among U.N. member states: respect for the freedom and sovereignty of each of us," he said.

Trump said in a tweet last month that he had "gotten to know" Bolsonaro well. "He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil — not easy," he said. "He and his country have the full and complete support of the USA."

A White House official later claimed that the U.S. did not agree to the G-7 fund promised by Macron.

Bolsonaro's frequent use of Twitter, as well as his skepticism of climate change and willingness to publicly attack news outlets has earned him the nickname "the Trump of the tropics" from foreign policy experts.

Insisting that Brazil had become a safer and more convenient country to visit under his leadership, Bolsonaro urged people to visit Brazil — particularly the Amazon rainforest.

"The Amazon is not being devastated nor is it being consumed by fire, as the media is falsely portraying," he insisted. "Do not hesitate to visit Brazil."

— CNBC's Christina Wilkie contributed to this article.

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Record-breaking number of fires burn in Brazil's Amazon