By Marcelo Teixeira and Eduardo Simões
SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro claimed on Friday that Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio financed fires being set in the Amazon rainforest, without presenting any evidence, the right-wing leader’s latest broadside in casting blame over forest fires that have generated international concern.
Bolsonaro appeared to be commenting on social media postings claiming that the environmental organization the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) had paid for images taken by volunteer firefighters that it then supposedly used to solicit donations, including a $500,000 contribution from DiCaprio.
The WWF has denied receiving a donation from DiCaprio or obtaining photos from the firefighters.
“This Leonardo DiCaprio is a cool guy, right? Giving money to torch the Amazon,” Bolsonaro said on Friday during brief remarks in front of the presidential residence.
DiCaprio denied having donated to the WWF. In a statement, the actor lauded “the people of Brazil working to save their natural and cultural heritage.” But, he said, “While worthy of support, we did not fund the organizations targeted.”
DiCaprio has been an outspoken advocate on behalf of combating climate change, speaking frequently about environmental issues including the Amazon forest fires. His Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which is focused on projects that “protect vulnerable wildlife from extinction,” is part of the Earth Alliance.
Four members of the nongovernmental organization Alter do Chão Fire Brigade were arrested on Tuesday with police accusing them of purposefully setting fires in order to document them and drum up more donations. They were released on Thursday on a judge’s order.
Politicians and other NGOs fiercely criticized the arrest, saying it was part of a concerted attempt by Bolsonaro’s government to harass environmental groups.
Scientists and activists blame land speculators, farmers and ranchers for setting the fires to clear land for agricultural use, saying that deforesters are being emboldened by Bolsonaro’s rhetoric of promoting development and farming over preservation.
The Amazon rainforest is considered a bulwark against global climate change.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly lashed out at various factions in casting blame for the forest fires.
In a Facebook live post on Aug. 21, he said, “Everything indicates” that NGOs were going to the Amazon to “set fire” to the forest. When asked then if he had evidence to back up his claims, Bolsonaro said he had “no written plan,” adding, “that’s not how it’s done.”
One day later he admitted that farmers could be illegally setting the rainforest ablaze, but roughly a month later he attacked the “lying media” for saying that the rainforest was being devastated by the fires.
Bolsonaro talked about DiCaprio on Thursday during a live webcast. The president said the WWF paid the firefighting NGO to take pictures of forest fires in the Amazon.
“So what did the NGO do? What is the easiest thing? Set fire to the forest. Take pictures, make a video,” the president said. “(WWF) makes a campaign against Brazil, it contacts Leonardo DiCaprio, he donates $500,000.”
“A part of that went to the people that were setting fires. Leonardo DiCaprio, you are contributing to the fire in the Amazon, that won’t do,” Bolsonaro said.
(Reporting by Eduardo Simões and Marcelo Teixeira; Editing by Jake Spring and Leslie Adler)