President Jair Bolsonaro said Thursday that while he did not have evidence that non-governmental organizations were behind the fires in the Amazon, the groups were the "biggest suspects" in the blazes that have started amid a drought, high temperatures and deforestation.
"It could also be the landowners, everybody is a suspect, but the biggest suspicion falls on the NGOs," Bolsonaro told reporters as he was leaving the Palacio da Alvorada, the presidential residence.
"Do you want me to blame the Indians? Do you want me to blame the Martians? But, as I understand it, a very strong indicator (points) to the NGO people who lost the 'teat,' it's simple," the president said, referring to his administration's decision to cut off funding for environmental and other NGOs operating in the Amazon region.
"I don't have any proof of this, because no one writes: 'I'm going to go set a fire over there,'" Bolsonaro said.
The president said he had seen images posted on social media showing people in automobiles, riding motorcyles and on bicycles setting fire to forests.
"I'm not defending the fires or saying that we've always had them and we'll have them, that's not it. Unfortunately, that happens in the life of the Amazon and now they accuse me of being 'Captain Nero,' irresponsibly setting fires there. They are carrying out a campaign against Brazil," the president said.
Bolsonaro spoke one day after insinuating that NGOs may be behind the fires in the Amazon, the biggest blazes in recent years.
The president's administration has cut funding to environmental groups and there have been tensions between Brasilia and Norway and Germany, which provide money for the Amazon Fund.
Bolsonaro said the press had twisted his words from Wednesday.
The president said that if "the world starts imposing barriers on commerce" for environmental reasons, the agricultural industry will "move backwards" and that "will affect everyone's life."
The National Space Research Council (INPE), which monitors fires in Brazil using satellite imagery, said the number of blazes in the country was up 83 percent compared to this time last year.
The INPE said in a report released on Tuesday that 71,497 fires had been registered between Jan. 1 and Aug. 18 in Brazil, with 52.5 percent of the blazes occurring in the Amazon region.
Some states, such as Amazonas and Acre, have declared environmental alerts or emergencies to deal with the fast-spreading fires because the smoke can cause respiratory problems and affect air traffic.
On Monday, the states of Mato Grosso do Sul and Parana, as well as the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest metropolis, were blanketed by smoke, with the sky completely covered in the afternoon.
Environmental and other NGOs, for their part, said they feared that settlers and agricultural business owners out to expand their holdings may be setting the fires in response to Bolsonaro's policies.
Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said in an interview on Thursday with the UOL website that the administration wanted to create a team drawn from different organizations to work on economic development in the Amazon and improve the data collection system. EFE