Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will skip a regional summit on the wildfires raging through the Amazon rainforest because his doctors want him to prepare for a surgery scheduled next week, AFP reported on Monday, citing his spokesperson Otavio Rego Barros.

The summit would be a reunion of regional leaders whose countries include parts of the Amazon rainforest. Bolsonaro had authorised the military to fight the fires last month after several days of public protests and international calls for the country to do more to protect the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

Barros said Brazil may send a substitute in the president’s place or ask for the summit to be postponed. “Bolsonaro has to go on a liquid diet starting Friday, the same day as the summit in Colombia, and this makes the trip unfeasible,” Barros said.

International attention was drawn to the crisis in the Amazon rainforest since Brazil’s space research center INPE said there has been an estimated 83% increase in forest fires in the Amazon compared to the same time period in 2018. This came amid Bolsonaro’s arguments that the forest needed to be exploited after he was elected to the presidency in October 2018.

A month before the election, in September 2018, Bolsonaro was stabbed during a campaign rally by a man called Adélio Bispo de Oliveira, who said God had sent him. His surgery on Sunday is to correct an incisional hernia and is his fourth operation since the attack. Doctors have reportedly said he would need 10 days of rest after the operation, which would be performed in Sao Paulo.

Bolsonaro vowed to defend his controversial Amazon policy at this month’s United Nations General Assembly even if he had to do so “in a wheelchair.” “I will appear before the UN even in a wheelchair, on a stretcher,” the far-right president had said. UN Secretary-General António Guterres had last week suggested holding a meeting to address the fires.

The rainforest – known as the world’s lungs – produces a fifth of the world’s oxygen, comprises at least 40% of Earth’s rainforests, and is home to three million species of plants and animals, and indigenous people. Preserving it is critical to the fight against global warming.

According to environmentalists and Bolsonaro’s critics, the fires in Amazon are connected to the president’s rollback of environmental protections of the rainforest. Part of Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign included promise to open up access to Brazil’s protected lands for commercial use. In less than a year since his election, the country has lost more than 3,445 square km of forest cover – 39% increase from the same time period in 2018. According to some estimates, Brazil lost 7,900 square km of Amazon forest, or nearly a billion trees, between August 2017 and July 2018.

Also read:

  1. Satellite images of Amazon fires indicate that land is probably being cleared for cattle pasture
  2. A tribal woman from the Amazon rainforest has a message for the world

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