By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA - Former Brazilian environment minister and presidential candidate Marina Silva on Thursday called wildfires raging in the Amazon rainforest a "crime against humanity" and blamed current policies for fueling the blazes.
A record number of wildfires have raged for weeks and are decimating the Brazilian Amazon, the world's largest tropical rainforest whose protection scientists say is critical to the fight against climate change.
The blazes have nearly doubled this year compared with the same period in 2018, according to Brazilian officials, prompting a global outcry.
"The whole world is watching a situation that is out of control in terms of deforestation and fires in Brazil's Amazon," Silva told a conference in Bogota.
She and other environmentalists have blamed the Amazon's plight on cuts to environmental protections under right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in January riding a wave of populist support for his anti-corruption campaign.
"It's a situation I regard to be a crime against the homeland, a crime against humanity," Silva, a former senator, said.
"Throughout Brazil's history we have had difficult situations, but this is the first time we have a situation that was practically and officially fueled by the government," she added.
Bolsonaro has railed against environmental fines for farmers and called for indigenous reserves and other protected areas to be opened up for development. The Environment Ministry has set up a body with the power to pardon deforesters.
Federal prosecutors in Brazil's Amazon state of Para said they will investigate the spike in deforestation and wildfires to determine whether there has been reduced monitoring and enforcement of environmental protections.
Environmentalists like Silva, a minister under former left-wing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, say Bolsonaro's push to open the Amazon to development is emboldening industry, illegal loggers and ranchers to clear land and exploit natural resources.
"The Bolsonaro government has broken down all the environmental policies that were created throughout the decades," said Silva, who was born into a rubber-tapping community in the Amazon.
Earlier this month Norway and Germany suspended funding for projects to curb deforestation in Brazil after becoming alarmed by rising deforestation under Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro said on Thursday the government lacks the resources to fight the wildfires. He also said that while he could not prove that non-governmental groups were lighting the fires, they were "the most likely suspects."
The president also said in a Facebook broadcast that countries giving money to preserve the Amazon do it to "interfere with our sovereignty," and not for charity.
Indigenous groups who live in the Amazon rainforest and depend on it for survival said the wildfires in Brazil and eastern Bolivia were a "tragedy."
"The lack of capacity of these governments and their lack of political will has caused the serious environmental tragedy that for weeks, and without precedent, already shows irreversible environmental damage," indigenous Amazon organizations said.
Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of rights group Amnesty International, said responsibility to stop the wildfires "lies squarely" with Brazil's government, which "must change their disastrous policy of opening up the rainforest for destruction."