Despatch from Sao Paulo | International

How did the planet’s lungs catch fire?

In the first week of August, some messages began to circulate in a WhatsApp group comprising 70 ranchers, land-grabbers and illegal miners in Pará, a State located in the Amazon rainforest. In the messages, the group hatched a plan to start fires in the forest along a highway in the region on August 10. They designated it as the “Day of Fire”. As the fires lit by them began to sweep huge swathes of trees, the group shared another set of messages. These carried instructions on how to blame some NGOs for the blazes which were sending plumes of smoke up to Sao Paulo, some 3,000 km away. In a few days, countless fires — 26,000 as per some estimates — erupted across the Brazilian rainforest.

This brazen crime, exposed by the Globo Rural magazine on August 25,was committed for two objectives: grabbing of forest land and areas reserved for indigenous tribes; and to show their defiance to the Brazilian Environmental Institute (IBAMA), which monitors the forests and fines those who violate environmental laws.

With the far-right President, Jair Bolsonaro, repeatedly talking of clipping the wings of IBAMA, the agency seems helpless.

“These fires are not accidental or natural. They have been deliberately set to carry out all kinds of illegal activities. But we have been reduced to a toothless tiger by our government,” said a senior IBAMA official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official has a reason to sound frustrated. It has been now revealed that a federal prosecutor in Pará came to know about the fire plot and alerted IBAMA authorities. But they failed to act because of the lack of police personnel at their disposal. The agency’s request for the National Force troops went ignored. “The message from the government was clear. They were not interested in tackling these acts of organised crime,” rued the IBAMA official.

The Amazon, 60% of whose 5.5 million sq km of area lies in Brazil, has been the target of criminals since 1980s. But successive Brazilian governments have tried to control these crimes with varied degrees of success. In 2018, an Amazon Task force carried out six operations that resulted in the prosecution of many criminals and identified 3,000 hectares of deforested land.

The situation changed drastically when Mr. Bolsonaro, who jokingly calls himself “Captain Chainsaw”, assumed the presidency in January. With his attacks on IBAMA as a “fining industry” and promises to open the “protected lands to industry”, the rainforest has come under an unprecedented assault. The satellite data for 2019 shows an 84% spike in forest fires as compared to 2018. According to a report, an elite group of environmental crime fighters, known as IBAMA Rambos, who shut down 200 illegal timber and mining sites between 2014 and 2018, have been sitting idle this year. With Brazil’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, too, often demonising IBAMA, the number of fines imposed by the agency has dropped by 42%.

‘Too little, too late’

Earlier this month, the Bolsonaro government woke up to the crisis only after tens of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to protest against the plundering of Amazon, and several European governments slammed him for doing nothing to check the fires.

Starting August 24, two weeks after the “Day of Fire”, Brazilian Air Force’s C-130s started dropping water on the raging fires, as 43,000 troops were dispatched to the northern region which is covered in a haze. After the Globo Rural exposed the fire plot, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office also ordered a probe into the crime. “There is a suspicion of orchestrated action and an activity that has been planned for a long time to achieve this result [forest fires],” said Attorney-General Raquel Dodge, who put together a team to investigate the Amazon crimes.

But all these steps could be too little and half-hearted. Last Sunday, as the “Day of Fire” plot was exposed, President Bolsonaro’s supporters, including the Environment Minister, unleashed a Twitter storm, blaming NGOs for the Amazon crimes. Amid this troll attack, the fires are still raging in the Amazon and a pall of smoke is now moving towards Buenos Aires.

Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in Sao Paulo.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 3:42:02 AM |

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