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Significant or just symbolic? Experts question if foreign aid for Amazon wildfires is going to help

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An aerial view of forest fire of the Amazon taken with a drone is seen from an Indigenous territory in the state of Mato Grosso, in Brazil, August 23, 2019
An aerial view of forest fire of the Amazon taken with a drone is seen from an Indigenous territory in the state of Mato Grosso, in Brazil, August 23, 2019 -
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Marizilda Cruppe/Amnesty International/Handout via REUTERS
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Emmanuel Macron and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro have been embroiled in a war of words over international funding to help tackle raging Amazon wildfires.

Emergency aid worth around €18 million was announced to combat the blazes at the recent G7 summit in France.

Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, said he wouldn’t accept the aid until Macron had apologised for accusing him of lying over climate change.

But the Elysee — the office of the French president — has suggested the money was never intended to be paid directly to Brazil. It told Euronews the aid will be transferred to Chile who will co-ordinate its use. It is unclear whether the decision to send the money via Chile was taken before or after Macron's row with Bolsonaro.

The cash will be used to primarily to pay for more firefighting planes. But experts told us that was not addressing the root cause of the problem.

Read more: Brazil open to receiving foreign aid to fight Amazon fires if it decides how it's used

Foreign aid heading for the region

The G7, who have pledged around €18 million, is not alone in indicating it wants to help protect the Amazon.

A broader initiative to address "reforestation" and "to create economic activity that is respectful of the planet, with governments but also with the regions and with native peoples" is set to be finalised at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has put up £10 million [€11 million] to protect the Amazon which "will be invested in Brazil to restore the areas already destroyed and protect those habitats still intact," business and energy secretary Andrea Leadsom said.

Leadsom said it would also support "those communities and businesses in the area to work together to secure its future", but did not specify how the department planned to work with the local communities.

Canada and Israel also said they would provide funding.

"We have been in contact with several countries affected over the past few days and have offered $15 million and the use of Canadian water bombers to help them fight the fires in the Amazon," a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said.

The Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland spoke with her Brazilian and Bolivian counterparts in recent days, the department said, and the countries are assessing what they might need.

The Elysée announced on Thursday that planes have already arrived in Paraguay for the G7-funded effort that is being coordinated by Chile.

"At the G7 the Chilean President asked his South American counterparts concerned about the fires what they needed most to fight them," said the Elysee in a statement to Euronews.

"It emerged that the main need was to obtain additional aircraft.

"The emergency aid of 20 million dollars recorded at the G7 is therefore intended for this purpose and is paid to Chile, which is responsible for renting planes to fight fires in the Amazon. These planes will be used then by the countries which make the request but it is indeed Chile which coordinates.

"At this point, planes arrived in Paraguay. And other countries should benefit in the coming days."

But Germany and Norway recently froze a greater amount, roughly €65 million, from the Amazon Fund after increases in deforestation in Brazil.

A ministry spokeswoman for Norway told Reuters that Brazil had blocked groups from using the Amazon protection subsidies.

"It's going to have an impact on both fighting the fires and fighting deforestation," says Dr Erika Berenguer, a senior research associate at the University of Oxford working on the impact of fires on Amazonian biodiversity.

The Amazon Fund helped to pay for fire brigades and planes in some of the affected Amazon states, she said.

Will foreign funding help?

Many experts say the foreign aid currently isn't addressing the root cause of the Amazon fires.

"If you don't address deforestation, you're not addressing the cavity in the tooth, you're just addressing the toothache," said Berenguer.

She says fighting fires has a "limited efficiency" if deforestation isn't addressed.

Kathryn Hochstetler, a professor of international development at the London School of Economics, explained: “The main point is that these are not the kinds of fires that require large-scale emergency fire-fighting equipment.

"They’re mostly small and controlled and offer the bigger — and political and economic — challenges of keeping them from being set in the first place."

"That challenge is hard to address with direct foreign aid of any kind," she added.

Nigel Sizer from the Rainforest Alliance emphasised that this type of foreign aid is often symbolic.

“The aid money would be best spent on fire prevention. I also wonder how much of the support promised actually even arrives,” he said.

The NYC-based Rainforest Alliance primarily sends money to smaller, local Brazilian NGOs, which organise public relations campaigns and educate the public about protecting the Amazon.

Some international assistance has gone to environmental NGOs, which play an important role in Brazilian politics, Hochstetler told Euronews.

But those groups don't have the resources to manage an effort as large-scale as the Amazon Rainforest, which spans nine countries.

Experts also have pointed out that the G7-proposed funds are not nearly enough.

"The seven richest countries in the world can just put together [$20 million]? It's quite a poor offer... I don't think it shows that much commitment," said Berenguer.

It remains to be seen whether or not countries will agree on projects in the Amazon that work towards the cause of the problem at the UN in September.

A path forward

Experts say the situation in the Amazon is ultimately concerning because the cause of the fires is linked to politics and deforestation.

The policies of the current Brazilian government have been in favour of developing the Amazon region rather than protecting it.

Brazilian biologists Joice Nunes Ferreira and Mercedes Bustamante commented on the situation in Veja, a Brazilian magazine.

“It is clear that the current situation is alarming and there are strong indications that the burns and fires seen in recent weeks are associated with deforestation and other illegal activities. Therefore, a strong stance of protection of native vegetation is needed, curbing deforestation and preventing new fires,” wrote

These Brazilian biologists say that “long-term planning including traditional peoples and the protection of native vegetation” is essential to meet the challenge.