Brazil’s president has insisted that he is taking a tough approach to tackling the Amazon wildfires as protesters demanded action.

Jair Bolsonaro, who is less than a year into his presidential term, said: “We are a government of zero tolerance for crime, and in the environmental field it will not be different.”

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But as he spoke, thousands of Brazilians gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and the capital Brasilia – calling for stronger action to stop the fires.

There have also been demonstrations in other South American countries, as well as Europe, the US and India.

Climate change activists protest against the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over the fires in the Amazon rainforest, in front of the Brazilian Embassy in Quito on August 23, 2019
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In front of the Brazilian Embassy in Quito, Ecuador, hundreds gathered to protest

Earlier, Mr Bolsonaro deployed that the country’s military to help the firefighting effort.

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Forces will arrive from Saturday and will remain in the area for a month, according to the presidential decree authorising their deployment.

Mr Bolsonaro said: “The protection of the forest is our duty.

“We are aware of that and will act to combat deforestation and criminal activities that put people at risk in the Amazon.”

Forest
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The smoke from the fires can be seen from about 400 miles up in space

But he hit back at what he described as “data and unfounded messages inside or outside Brazil” relating to the fires.

He said this “doesn’t help to solve the problem, and it is being used politically and as misinformation”.

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World leaders have expressed concern at the state of the Amazon rainforest, which is considered the world’s lungs because it is a vital absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

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Because it produces vast amounts of oxygen, the Amazon is also crucial in the world’s efforts to contain global warming.

Brazil's official monitoring agency reported a sharp increase in Amazon wildfires this year
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There have been tens of thousands of fires in Brazil this year, according to an official monitor

But Brazil’s right-wing president sees the area as crucial for his country’s economic development and has previously vowed to open it up to mining, logging and agriculture. Some accuse him of encouraging deforestation.

Mr Bolsonaro could find that the world’s displeasure spills over into trade policy, with France now opposing the EU’s trade deal with South American nations including Brazil.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson have also expressed concerns about the fires and their effect on the wider environment.

But the Brazilian government says European countries are exaggerating the problem, with Mr Bolsonaro saying: “It’s not easy to fight deforestation – our Amazon area is bigger than all of Europe.”

The states worst affected this year are Mato Grosso, Para and Amazonas, which fall within the Amazon region
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The states worst affected are Mato Grosso, Para and Amazonas, which fall within the Amazon region

According to Thomas Lovejoy, an environmental scientist at George Mason University, close to 20% of the Amazon has already been lost to deforestation.

Mr Lovejoy said he worried that the current deforestation would “push past the tipping point leading to massive loss of forest and biodiversity”.

Fires are common during the dry season, but this year they have been particularly widespread and numerous: there have been nearly 77,000 in 2019 so far – up 85% from the same period last year.

Just over half of these have been in the Amazon.

Neighbouring Bolivia and Paraguay are also struggling to contain fires.

About 2,900 square miles have been affected in Bolivia and 140 square miles in Paraguay.

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