UNITED NATIONS - President Jair Bolsonaro downplayed the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in his address to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday, claiming Brazil was the target of a "brutal" and "shady" international campaign to discredit it.
For the second year in a row, Bolsonaro, a far-right climate-change skeptic, faced criticism as the annual assembly began for presiding over a surge in wildfires in the world's biggest rainforest.
This year, the destruction in the Amazon has been coupled with record fires in the Pantanal, the world's largest tropical wetlands.
But Bolsonaro downplayed the environmental damage and said his government was being unfairly attacked.
"We are victims of a most brutal disinformation campaign about the Amazon and the Brazilian wetlands," he said in a video address to the General Assembly.
"The Brazilian Amazon is known to be immensely rich. That explains the support given by international institutions to this campaign anchored on shady interests coupled with exploitative and unpatriotic Brazilian associations with the purpose of undermining the government and Brazil itself."
He said the fires were being set largely by indigenous farmers using traditional slash-and-burn agriculture.
But ecologists say they are in fact being driven by large-scale agriculture and land speculation in the Amazon region, where farmers and ranchers often clear land by bulldozing trees then burning them.
Bolsonaro has drawn criticism by calling for more land in the Amazon to be opened to agriculture and mining.
Environmental groups were quick to condemn his address.
"Bolsonaro's denialist rhetoric, even as the country burns, is a disgrace to the Brazilian people and isolates Brazil from the world," Greenpeace said in a statement.
The speech was "full of unfounded accusations and scientifically baseless inferences," said Gabriela Yamaguchi of the World Wildlife Fund's Brazil office.
In 2019, Bolsonaro's first year in office, deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon increased 85.3 percent, to a record 10,123 square kilometers (3,900 square miles) -- nearly the size of Lebanon.
So far this year, the rate is down by about five percent, though the number of fires has increased 12 percent, to 71,673.
Meanwhile, in less than nine months, 2020 has already broken the annual record for the number of fires in the Pantanal, with 16,119, burning more than 10 percent of the wetlands.