RIO DE JANEIRO — Rocked by global outrage and threats of economic losses over its handling of fires raging in the Amazon rain forest, Brazil on Saturday began a hastily planned military operation to battle the blazes and generate a “positive perception” of the country.
As of Saturday, at least four Brazilian states had formally requested military assistance to contain hundreds of fires, which have been burning for several weeks but plunged President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration into crisis mode only this week after photographs began circulating widely.
The number of fires tracked by satellite this year is the highest since 2010.
Military officials said they had deployed two C-130 cargo planes equipped with firefighting tools to the state of Rondônia and were assessing how many of the nearly 44,000 troops based in the Amazon area to mobilize. In addition to Rondônia, the armed forces will support firefighting efforts in the states of Pará, Tocantins and Roraima.
The plan got underway hours after Mr. Bolsonaro — a longtime critic of Brazil’s strict, but sparsely enforced, environmental regulations — told the nation in a televised speech that the government would take a “zero tolerance” approach to environmental crimes.
That was a remarkable statement for a leader who has called environmental fines an “industry” that must be abolished, and has pledged to make it easier for industries to access protected areas. Mr. Bolsonaro himself was issued a fine in 2012 for fishing in a protected area. The fine went unpaid.
Mr. Bolsonaro had dismissed concerns about the Amazon fires for days, but was moved to announce the military effort soon after European leaders threatened to cancel a major trade deal and calls for a boycott of Brazilian products resounded on social media.
Brazilian officials said the military was uniquely equipped to battle the fires and help enforce environmental laws. But restoring the country’s image was also at play.
Lt. Brig. Raul Botelho, the chief of the Armed Forces’ Joint Staff, said an important part of the mission was creating “a positive perception of the country.”
During a news conference in the capital, Brasília, on Saturday morning, officials said they were organizing a task force to assess how the military’s intelligence, logistical and transportation capabilities could contain fires set in areas where loggers and farmers have razed forest cover.
But key questions have yet to be answered: how many fires will be fought, how many troops will be assigned and how much money will be spent.
Images of forest fires — including many that were several years old — set off an outcry this week as world leaders, celebrities and others raised alarm about the fate of the world’s largest rain forest.
Forest fires in the Amazon are common this time of year as newly cleared land is readied for crops or cattle-grazing, but Mr. Bolsonaro’s disdain for strict environmental policies has emboldened miners, loggers and farmers to strip and burn protected areas with a sense of impunity.
World leaders said that conservation of the Amazon is high on the agenda for leaders of the Group of 7 nations who are meeting this weekend in Biarritz, France. On Friday, President Emmanuel Macron of France threatened to block a major European trade deal with Brazil and three other South American nations.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s about-face has been greeted with skepticism. As he spoke on television Friday night, many Brazilians banged pots and pans in protest. Environmental groups said they wanted to see a more detailed plan to curb environmental degradation.
“He seemed more concerned in protecting himself than in protecting the rain forest,” Marcio Astrini, the coordinator of public policies at Greenpeace, said in a statement.