On Friday, November 29, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro accused Hollywood actor Leondardo DiCaprio of financing fires set in the Amazon rainforest earlier this year. Bolsonaro claimed DiCaprio gave “money to set the Amazon on fire.”
According to the New York Times, President Bolsonaro’s remarks are his latest attempt to shift blame for the Amazon fires onto environmental groups operating in Brazil. The accusations made against DiCaprio follow the arrest of four volunteer firefighters in the Amazonian region of Pará accused of starting fires to generate donations.
Reports suggest that Bolsonaro was commenting on claims that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) paid for images that showed volunteer firefighters tackling fires in the Amazon. The strongly disputed accusation claims that volunteers set fires, took photos and then used the images to solicit donations, including a $500,000 contribution from DiCaprio.
Although the environmental organization denies receiving a donation from DiCaprio following the publication of the images, President Bolsanro said “This Leonardo DiCaprio is a cool guy, right? Giving money to torch the Amazon.” He added: “So what did the NGO do? What is the easiest thing? Set fire to the forest. Take pictures, make a video. WWF makes a campaign against Brazil, it contacts Leonardo DiCaprio, he donates $500,000.”
Before claiming DiCaprio funded the fires, Bolsonaro accused the actor of being involved in an international “campaign against Brazil.”
In a statement posted on Instagram, DiCaprio rebutted Bolsonaro’s claim. The actor said, “Although they are certainly worth supporting, we have not funded the organizations that are currently under attack.”
The actor, who pledged $5 million to help protect Brazil’s rainforests following the August fires, added: “The future of these irreplaceable ecosystems is at stake and I am proud to be part of the groups that protect them.” He also praised the people of Brazil “working to save their natural and cultural heritage.”
World Wildlife Fund response
Members of the British and Dutch royal families were among the founders of the WWF, which has a revenue of $334 million and $323 million in expenses – for which nearly 85% is reportedly dedicated to charitable services.
WWF’s Brazil office rejected the accusation that they had used images of volunteer firefighters for economic gain. The organization said it “rejects the attacks on its partners and the lies involving its name, including a series of lie-based social media attacks such as the purchase of photographs linked to a donation from the actor Leonardo DiCaprio.”
Bolsonaro’s past views
After taking office in January, Bolsonaro expressed a strong opinion regarding environmental groups and foreign nations who criticized his administration’s stance on environmental concerns. The Guardian reports that in 2018 Bolsonaro said: “This cowardly business of international NGOs like WWF and so many others from England sticking their noses into Brazil is going to end! This tomfoolery stops right here!”
Bolsonaro has made unsubstantiated claims about environmental groups working in Brazil before, including involving an Amazon fire in August, which led to the international community condemning his administration’s stand. He blamed the “information war going on in the world against Brazil.” He then ousted the head of his government’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) that monitors deforestation, accusing the institute of manipulating deforestation data to discredit his administration.
Fires burn in the Amazon
In August this year, fires burned in the Amazon. There were 30,901 individual fires – three times as many as the previous month. The increased rate of the fires has led to global concern over the condition of the “lungs of the planet” – as the Amazon is often referred to – which some claim play a significant role in mitigating the climate crisis.
It is not uncommon for fires to burn in the Amazon during the dry season. However, critics attribute the increased devastation to Bolsonaro’s pro-business policies. Critics say such policies have weakened environmental protection and encouraged deforestation of the Amazon.
Although widespread deforestation dates back decades, the issue had been well managed by the Brazilian government since the early 2000s, when nearly half of the Amazon was under protection to reduce deforestation. Since the election of Bolsonaro, his administration has argued that environmental legislation hinders economic development in the region – resulting in the highest deforestation rate in years.
Bolsonaro was initially unconcerned about the fires, rejecting international calls to take action, and claiming foreign leaders and environmental groups were making unfounded claims. However, after increased pressure and trade deal threats, the president deployed Brazilian troops to combat the fires. He later signed an order banning land clearance fires in the Amazon for a sixty-day period.
The fires led to increased levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). National Geographic reports the impact on the ecosystem of the Amazon was “massive”. Industrial and agricultural actions that facilitated the fires threaten approximately 306,000 indigenous people who live near or within the rainforest.