Blazes ignite suspicion in Amazon town

Stephen Eisenhammer –
A maverick journalist in this isolated Brazilian ranching town warned his readers last month that the surrounding Amazon was about to go up in flames.
Queimadas, or burnings, are nothing new in Novo Progresso, located on the frontier where Brazil’s farmland edges the Amazon rainforest in the northern state of Para. Locals say farmers annually use fire to illegally clear pastures or newly deforested areas.
But the August 5 article in the online Folha do Progresso was eerily specific about an upcoming “Day of Fire.” It said growers and ranchers were planning to set a coordinated series of fires in the forest and nearby land on Saturday, August 10, inspired in part by President Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s right-wing leader has vowed to open the world’s largest rainforest to more development. Punishment of environmental crimes has plummeted on his watch.
When the day came, the number of fires tripled from the prior 24 hours. Government data recorded 124 blazes, compared to just six on August 10 last year. Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In an August 25 message on Twitter, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said Bolsonaro had ordered a “rigorous” probe to “investigate and punish those responsible” for the Novo Progresso fires.
State and federal police have since descended on this rough-edged town of 30,000. Some residents are not pleased with the sudden attention. Most farmers approached by Reuters declined to be interviewed. Many dismissed the Folha do Progresso story as rubbish, the invention of a fabulist. “For you outsiders, we’re all criminals here,” one rancher said, declining to give his name.
Adecio Piran, the reporter who wrote the article, said he temporarily went into hiding after receiving death threats. He stands by his story. According to prosecutors investigating the case, Brazil’s government did not move aggressively to prevent the conflagration, despite forewarning.
Prosecutor Paulo Oliveira said he notified Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama, about the Folha do Progresso article on August 7. The agency responded on August 12, two days after the “Day of Fire,” saying it lacked the police support needed to investigate the matter, according to copies of the correspondence between Ibama and Oliveira reviewed by Reuters. Ibama did not respond to a request for comment.
Army troops were dispatched to the area weeks later. By last Wednesday, there were about 200 soldiers camping on a dusty patch of land used for country fairs on the edge of town. As Reuters drove the long road into town on August 30, smoke still hung heavy in parts. Charred tree trunks and ash littered the ground where jungle recently stood.
Brazil’s Environment Ministry declined to comment for this story. Salles, the minister, has said previously that overly restrictive environmental policies have incited rural dwellers to resort to illegal logging and mining to make a living. The “Day of Fire” is part of a brutal wave of destruction in Brazil’s rainforest this year. Some 6,404.8 square kilometres have been despoiled, double the area felled at this point last year and larger than the US state of Delaware.
Images of the Amazon burning have sparked international condemnation of the environmental policies of Bolsonaro, who has dismissed those concerns as outsiders meddling in Brazil’s
internal affairs.
Madalena Hoffmann, a former mayor of Novo Progresso, said she did not know if the August 10 fires were intentionally coordinated. She said deforestation has gone too far. But like many here, she blames the government for imposing environmental rules so complicated and strict that farmers feel they must break the law to ply their trade. “Fundamentally it’s the government’s fault,” she said.
— Reuters