Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has a new scapegoat for the fires in the Amazon: “cool guy” Leonardo DiCaprio.
In a speech from the presidential palace Friday, the Brazilian strongman referred to social media posts alleging DiCaprio donated to an environmental organization that Bolsonaro accused of setting fires in the Amazon just to get good pictures of them. The organization, the World Wildlife Fund, could then use the images to drum up a $500,000 donation from DiCaprio.
“This Leonardo DiCaprio is a cool guy, right? Giving money to torch the Amazon,” Bolsonaro said.
There’s no evidence the WWF has done any such thing, though it has been accused of doing so on social media. The organization strongly disputes the allegations and denies that DiCaprio donated any money — as does the actor.
“At this time of crisis for the Amazon, I support the people of Brazil working to save their natural and cultural heritage,” DiCaprio posted on Saturday, responding to Bolsonaro. “While worthy of support, we did not fund the organizations targeted.”
But that hasn’t stopped Bolsonaro or his government from peddling the idea that non-governmental organizations stand to benefit from the fires and so are setting them — even though it’s clear the president’s policies have encouraged deforestation and emboldened ranchers to set blazes to clear the rainforest for cattle pastures. Indigenous communities have risen up to protect the forest, and a few have been killed by ranchers in retaliation for speaking out.
“They have been kind of emboldened by Bolsonaro’s rhetoric,” Paulo Barretto, a senior research with conservation nonprofit IMAZON, told VICE News of the ranchers driving deforestation and fires. “They believe that Bolosnaro is going to open these lands for agriculture.”
As part of the effort to deflect responsibility, Bolsonaro’s government has even gone so far as to arrest environmentalists.
On Tuesday, the Brazilian government arrested four members of the Alter do Chão fire brigade, a nongovernmental organization that’s been fighting the flames, on charges that it was setting fires to photograph them and lure in donors. A judge ordered the workers’ release two days later, according to the BBC, and the arrests were widely seen as a move by a right-wing president to persecute environmentalists and deflect blame from his own administration for the fires.
A larger area burned this year than at any point since 2008, according to the Brazilian government. More than 730,000 acres were both deforested and burned in the Brazilian Amazon this year alone. Aside from the loss of habitat for many species, the Amazon stores so much planet-heating carbon that its burning could be catastrophic for the climate.
In August, a group of ranchers even appeared to have coordinated over social media to intentionally set fire to the Amazon in an event dubbed the “Day of Fire.” On the day in question, Aug. 10, the number of fires tripled, according to Reuters.
Cover image: Leonardo DiCaprio attends the 14th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival honors Martin Scorsese with Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara on November 14, 2019 in Santa Barbara, California. Photo: imageSPACE/MediaPunch /IPX