This natural-color image of smoke and fires in several states within Brazil including Amazonas, Mato Grosso, and Rondônia was collected by NOAA/NASA's Suomi NPP using the VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite) instrument on August 20, 2019 / © NOAA/NASA/AFP
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro denied Thursday that his policies were to blame for raging wildfires in the Amazon and accused the media of harming the interests of the country by branding him a "Captain Nero."
"I do not defend the burnings, because there always was and always will be burnings. Unfortunately, this has always happened in the Amazon," Bolsonaro said, referring to dry season, land-clearing fires.
"But accusing me of being a Captain Nero setting fire to things is irresponsible. It is campaigning against Brazil," the president told reporters outside his Brasilia residence.
The reference to Captain Nero appeared to be to the Roman emperor who fiddled while Rome burned. Bolsonaro is a former army captain.
Forest fires tend to intensify during the dry season, which usually ends in late October or early November, as land is cleared to make way for crops or grazing.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro / © AFP
"Just think, if the world begins imposing trade barriers, our agribusiness will fall, we will start to go backwards, the economy will start to get worse -- your life, the lives of newspaper editors, television owners, the lives of all Brazilians will be complicated, without exception. The press is committing suicide."
He said Brazil was suffering an "environmental psychosis" which was hampering development. "I don't want to finish the environment, I want to save Brazil," he said.
Official figures show nearly 73,000 forest fires were recorded in Brazil in the first eight months of the year -- the highest number for any year since 2013. Most were in the Amazon.
That compares with 39,759 in the same period of 2018, according to the embattled National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which has been in Bolsonaro's cross-hairs since it released data showing a surge in deforestation in recent months.
Fires in the Amazon / © AFP
Bolsonaro on Wednesday hit out at green NGOs, suggesting they may be behind the forest fires, to "call attention against me, against the Brazilian government" following funding cuts.
On Thursday, he denied formally accusing NGOs, saying: "I never accused NGOs, I said I suspected NGOs."
Bolsonaro's comments come as Brazil hosts a UN regional meeting on climate change in the northeastern city of Salvador ahead of December's summit in Chile.
The 25th UN Conference on Climate Change (COP25) was originally planned for Brazil, but the country pulled out.