Brazilian president wants apology before accepting aid to help fight Amazon fires

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By Erik Ortiz  with NBC News World News
Image: Smoke billows from a fire burning in the Amazon basin near Candeias
Smoke billows from a fire burning in the Amazon basin near Candeias do Jamari, Brazil, on Aug. 24, 2019.   -   Copyright  Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said Tuesday that he will accept the offer of international aid to help fight the fires raging across the Amazon rainforest, but French President Emmanuel Macron must apologize to him first.

Bolsonaro appeared offended by Macron's comments related to his handling of the unfolding crisis in the Amazon, and wanted them retracted.

"And then we can speak," he said, according to The Associated Press.

The Brazilian leader's demand for an apology follows Macron lashing out after a Bolsonaro supporter mocked Macron's wife, Brigitte, in a Facebook post, comparing her to that of Bolsonaro's wife, Michelle, and suggesting Macron was jealous.

Bolsonaro commented on the post "don't humiliate the guy ... haha," leading Macron to respond during the Group of Seven nations summit Monday that the comment was "extremely disrespectful."

Macron did not immediately respond to Bolsonaro's conditions for accepting the money, worth roughly $20 million and pledged Monday during the G-7 summit in France. In addition, Britain said it would donate a separate $12 million and Canada another $11 million as part of the effort.

Earlier, Brazilian officials balked at the offer, with Bolsonaro's chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, telling the nation's news outlet G1 that "we appreciate it, but maybe these resources would be put to better use reforesting Europe."

Lorenzoni also took a swipe at Macron, who has sought to bring attention to the fires in the Amazon and tweeted last week that "it is an international crisis."

Macron "can't even prevent a foreseeable fire in a church that is a world heritage site," Lorenzoni said Monday, referring to the massive blaze that damaged Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral in April.

Brazil's ambassador to France, Luís Fernando Serra, echoed the sentiment Tuesday on French national television, saying in an interview that "we refuse the aid because we see interference" and it was "help we did not ask for."

The Bolsonaro government's earlier refusal came as no surprise after the populist president and Macron exchanged critical tweets last week. Bolsonaro has accused Macron of striking a "sensationalist tone" and the help as a "colonialist mentality."

He also suggested that Western nations appeared to be motivated by something else.

"Look, does anyone help anyone ... without something in return? What have they wanted there for so long?" Bolsonaro said.

His statement came as Brazil's environment minister, Ricardo Salles, earlier said that any aid was welcome.

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Macron on Monday assured Bolsonaro that the international offer comes with only good intentions.

"We respect your sovereignty. It's your country," he said, according to The Associated Press. But "the Amazon forest is a subject for the whole planet. We can help you reforest. We can find the means for your economic development that respects the natural balance. But we cannot allow you to destroy everything."

The Amazon rainforest, which sprawls across nine countries and is the largest rainforest in the world, has been burning at a record rate, according to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research. More than 74,000 fires have been observed in Brazil alone this year, almost double the total for 2018.

Bolsonaro, who took office in January, has faced backlash for rolling back environmental protections that have paved the way for the illegal clearing of forests in favor of cattle farming and agriculture. Last week, he posted a video to Facebook blaming nongovernmental organizations for setting the blazes as a tactic to malign him, although he provided no evidence for the claim.

Environmentalists say preserving the Amazon is essential because deforestation only exacerbates the effects of climate change, leads to the loss of biodiversity and could threaten rainfall patterns across the globe.