Despatch from Sao Paulo | International

Firefighters under fire for fighting Amazon blaze


Four volunteers, who were fighting the Amazon fires, were arrested on charges of starting fires

At the dawn on Tuesday, armed policemen arrived at the doors of four volunteer firefighters in the Alter do Chão area of Para State in the Amazon region. Bundled into the police cars, they were taken away without any arrest warrant. Then they were paraded on TV like criminals — dressed in prison uniforms, handcuffed, their heads shaved off, walking down the corridor of a notorious prison, where dozens have been hacked to death in two years. The same day, the police raided the office of Health and Joy, an NGO in the area, and took away their computers and papers, without a warrant.

The arrest of volunteers, who have been fighting the forest blaze with minimum resources, on the charges that they were “starting fires and filming them to raise money from international donors” sparked an outrage across the country. “My son is a guardian of the forest. He gave up his comfortable life in Sao Paulo and chose to live in a wooden cabin with no fence because he loves the forest and believes in protecting it,” says Patricia Romano, the mother of Joao Vitor, 27, who was one of the four arrested.

Mr. Vitor worked as a producer of videos in Sao Paulo before moving to Para in 2016 and founded the volunteer force with three others from this city. Known as the Alter Brigade, the group works voluntarily to protect the forest and communities of Alter do Chão, a scenic place caught in the crosshairs of land-grabbers. Mr. Vitor’s mother Ms. Patricia, a pioneer of Indian classical dances in Brazil, credits the influence of Indian culture for her son’s work. “I raised my children in a very Indian environment. From a young age, Joao used to meditate and chant mantras. His love for forest and animals also comes from those traditions,” says Ms. Patricia, who travelled to India first time in 1996 to learn Bharatnatyam and Mohiniyattam at Natyalaya run by Kalamandalam Sumathi in Perumbavoor, Kerala. “Joao and his colleagues risk their lives to defend the Amazon.”

The Amazon has been burning for months, with little being done to control the blaze. The arrest of Alter Brigade volunteers, which became an international headline in less than 24 hours, has exposed the deep fault-lines colliding in the world’s biggest ecosystem. Shaji Thomas, a post-doctoral researcher at the Federal University of Para who has lived in Alter do Chão for 10 years coordinating many social and environmental projects, blames the government for the crisis. “The government has done practically nothing to curb the fires. There is a parallel government run by landlords and big companies who dictate what the state should do. The timber lobby here is so powerful that they even block the police action,” says the academic, originally from India, who last month released a book on the history of social movements in the region.

Conflict zone

Mr. Thomas, who lived on a boat with local people at Alter do Chão, describes how the picturesque area, which has a sweet-water beach, became a conflict zone between hotel developers and indigenous tribes. In the past 30 years, says Mr. Thomas, almost all the locals were displaced from the village as the tourist industry rolled in, causing the destruction of local communities who were helped by some NGOs. “The NGOs are seen as enemies of development by both businesses and the government. Now, criminalising these NGOs is part of the new government’s strategy,” says Mr. Thomas, commenting on the arrest of Alter Brigade volunteers.

When the Amazon fires caught the world’s attention in August, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro blamed it on NGOs, without offering any evidence. With the Amazon situation getting worse, a group of Brazilian lawyers and a human rights group are seeking to indict Mr. Bolsonaro at the International Criminal Court for “encouraging genocide against Brazil’s indigenous people”. But that hasn’t stopped Mr. Bolsonaro from pushing his evidence-free narrative. On Friday, he accused Hollywood actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio of funding the Amazon fires, trying to link him up with the Alter Brigade volunteers who were ordered released by a Para judge on Thursday.

As they stepped out of jail on Thursday evening, the four men held hands, raised their fists and shouted “Amazônia Viva!”, before collapsing into the waiting arms of their families and friends. The volunteers are now back in Alter do Chão, resuming their work as fighters against the raging blazes even as Mr. Bolsonaro trends on social networks around the world as a meme for dragging DiCaprio into this Amazonian affair.

(Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in Sao Paulo)

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Printable version | Dec 13, 2019 4:20:49 PM |

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