Boris Johnson has said he is “deeply concerned” by the fires raging in the Amazon and called for international action to protect rainforests, as his government came under pressure from Labour for “cosying up” to the Brazilian administration on a trade mission.
“The prime minister is deeply concerned by the increase in fires in the Amazon rainforest and the impact of the tragic loss of these precious habitats,” said Johnson’s spokesperson ahead of this weekend’s G7 summit in Biarritz, after a call to action from the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
The spokesperson added: “The effect of these fires will be felt around the world which is why we need international action to protect the world’s rainforests.
“The UK will continue to support projects in Brazil to do this, and the prime minister will use the G7 to call for a renewed focus on protecting nature and tackling climate change.”
The international trade minister, Conor Burns, was earlier criticised by Labour for “cosying up” to ministers in the Brazilian government of the president, Jair Bolsonaro, instead of raising the plight of the Amazon rainforest, which is being ravaged by thousands of deliberate fires.
In a tweet posted on Thursday, the close ally of Johnson described the Brazilian trade minister, Marcos Troyjo, as “superb” during an official trade visit.
He shook hands with counterparts in Brasilia on Wednesday and declared a desire to “deepen relations”. Asked about the wildfires, Burns reportedly said Bolsonaro’s government had “legitimate ambitions to bring prosperity to its people”.
A spokesperson later claimed that the quote was taken out of context and that Burns did discuss the UK’s commitment to tackling the climate crisis in his interview.
Burns’s Twitter feed does not mention international fears and conservationists’ concerns that Brazil’s government is tacitly allowing, and could be actively encouraging, the devastation of the country’s rainforest.
Labour said Bolsonaro had encouraged the clearing of land by loggers and farmers and sped up deforestation.
Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, said Burns should not be “cosying up to” Troyjo because he has defended the Brazilian government’s deforestation policies.
The MP said: “While Bolsonaro lets agribusinesses burn the Amazon, this week a UK government minister has been busy cosying up to the Brazilian president’s officials.
“Instead of posing for photographs with far-right Brazilian politicians, ministers should be calling on Brazil to do everything they can to protect the rainforest. The government must insist that Brazil honours environmental clauses in existing trade agreements and fulfils their commitments under the Paris agreement.”
A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade said Burns had raised the environment in meetings in Brazil.
A government spokesperson said: “We are deeply saddened by the increase in fires in the Amazon rainforest …
“The UK remains committed to protecting the world’s rainforests and will continue to do so in Brazil through our international climate finance programmes.”
Bolsonaro has come under fire for attacking the country’s environment agencies and declaring plans to open up indigenous reserves – some of the best protected in the Amazon – to mining.
The large number of fires – set illegally to clear and prepare land for crops, cattle and property speculation – has prompted the state of Amazonas to declare an emergency and created giant smoke clouds that have drifted hundreds of miles.
In the five days to Wednesday, there were 7,746 fires in Brazil, according to data from the country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). This comes after a 278% rise in deforestation last month.
Concerns about the deteriorating situation have prompted protests at Brazil’s embassies. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has also urged Brazil to take action. He tweeted: “In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity. The Amazon must be protected.”
“Our house is burning,” tweeted Macron, who called for emergency talks on the subject at the G7 summit in France.