Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, tells UN General Assembly that the Amazon rainforest is sovereignt territory
Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, tells UN General Assembly that the Amazon rainforest is sovereignt territory AFP / Don Emmert

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro said Tuesday it was a lie that the Amazon was being devastated by fire and accused countries critical of him of having a "colonialist spirit."

Speaking first at this year's UN General Assembly, the far-right leader also heaped praise on his American counterpart Donald Trump for respecting his country's sovereignty.

The speech came a week after a Human Rights Watch report that accused Bolsonaro of giving a "green light" to illegal loggers and failing to protect those defending the world's largest rainforest.

"The Amazon is not being devastated or consumed by fire. The media is lying," said Bolsonaro, whose 32-minute speech went more than double his allotted time.

"It is a fallacy to say that the Amazon is the heritage of humankind, and a misconception confirmed by scientists to say that our Amazon forests are the lungs of the world," he said.

Bolsonaro also hit out at his detractors, saying that while every country had problems, sensational reporting in the international media "aroused our patriotic sentiments."

"Using and resorting to these fallacies, certain countries, instead of helping... behaved in a disrespectful manner and with a colonialist spirit," he said.

"They even called into question that which we hold as a most sacred value, our sovereignty."

Making a clear reference to France, he said: "One of these countries during the recent G7 meeting dared suggest applying sanctions to Brazil without consulting or even listening to Brazil."

France and Ireland have threatened to block a trade deal between the EU and South American countries including Brazil because of Bolsonaro's environmental policies.

Bolsonaro by contrast said he was grateful to Trump, "who summed up the spirit that should prevail among United Nation member countries: respect for the freedom and sovereignty of each of the member countries."

French President Emmanuel Macron hit back at Bolsonaro later Tuesday, reiterating that the planet had a "common interest" in the Amazon due to its impact on the climate.

"I will never support a leader who calls scientific facts into question," Macron told reporters, adding: "We need to respect the Brazilian people as well as the truth in order to make progress."

Fires still raging

Official figures do not back Bolsonaro's account that the fires are under control.

Amazon deforestation nearly doubled in the first eight months of this year, compared with the same period in 2018, to 6,404 square kilometers (2,472 square miles) -- more than twice the size of Luxembourg.

The acceleration in deforestation has been blamed for the sharp increase in fires this year, which official figures show have reached nearly 124,000, as land is cleared and burned to make way for cattle grazing or crops.

A decrease in rain and a recent heat wave together with strong winds are also factors in the blazes.

Bolsonaro defended his policies on indigenous people, whom he has a long record of disparaging -- once wishing they had been exterminated by early colonizers.

"Some people both inside and outside Brazil, supported by NGOs... have insisted on treating and keeping our Indians as though they were real cavemen," he said, suggesting his development plans would raise their quality of life.

Bolsonaro used the international stage to take personal aim at environmentalist and indigenous leader Raoni Metuktire, accusing the critic of his administration of being a tool of foreign governments to advance their interests.

Speaking Monday, the chief told reporters: "What Bolsonaro is doing today in the Amazon is opening it to range of actors, permitting the destruction of the Amazon.

"This is not just bad for us indigenous people, it is a disaster for all humanity."