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"Day of fire": flames ignite suspicion in Amazon city

Before the news about the fires was known, illegal actions by farmers had already been reported in the city of Novo Progresso

A small fire burns by the side of the road between Porto Velho and Humaita in Brazil's Amazonas state.

A small fire burns by the side of the road between Porto Velho and Humaita in Brazil's Amazonas state, September 5, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Fabio Teixeira

Reuters | Stephen Eisenhammer

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Leer en español: "Día del fuego": llamas encienden la sospecha en ciudad del Amazonas

A journalist from an isolated Brazilian cattle city warned his readers last month that the surrounding Amazon was about to catch fire.

The "queimadas" or burns are nothing new in Novo Progresso, located where the sowing lands of Brazil border the Amazon rainforest in the northern state of Pará.

Local people say that farmers use fire every year to illegally clean pastures or recently deforested areas.

But an August 5 article published online in the Folha do Progresso was disturbingly specific about a "Day of Fire."

The article noted that producers and ranchers planned to establish a coordinated series of fires in the forest and nearby lands on Saturday, August 10, inspired in part by the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro.

The right-wing leader has promised that he will open the world's largest rainforest to further development. The punishment of environmental crimes has collapsed under his mandate.

When the day came, the number of fires tripled from the previous 24 hours. Government data recorded 124 fires, compared with only six on August 10 last year.

Bolsonaro's office did not respond to a request for comment. In a message from August 25 on Twitter, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said Bolsonaro had ordered a "rigorous" investigation to "investigate and punish those responsible" for the fires of Novo Progresso.

Since then, state and federal police have reached this city of 30,000 inhabitants. Some residents are not satisfied with the sudden attention. Most of the farmers contacted by Reuters refused to be interviewed. Many dismissed the history of Folha do Progresso as garbage, the invention of a fabulist.

"For you, outsiders, we are all criminals here," said a rancher, who refused to give his name.

Adecio Piran, the journalist who wrote the article, told Reuters he hid temporarily after receiving death threats. Piran defends his story.

According to prosecutors investigating the case, the Brazilian government did not act diligently to avoid conflagration, despite the warning.

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 "Fire Day," saying it lacked the necessary police support 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 sent to the area weeks later. Last Wednesday, there were about 200 soldiers camping in a dusty terrain used for rural fairs on the outskirts of the city.

While Reuters was moving along the long road to the city on August 30, the smoke still felt heavy in some parts. Trunks of charred trees and ashes covered the ground where until recently there was jungle.

(For satellite images of Novo Progresso fires, see https://tmsnrt.rs/31dSPIO)

Also read: Pope says Amazon suffers with the blind and destructive mentality

The Brazilian Ministry of Environment did not want to speak for this story. Salles, the minister, has said before that environmental policies that are too restrictive have prompted rural people to resort to illegal logging and mining for a living.

The "Day of Fire" is part of a brutal wave of destruction of the rainforest of Brazil this year. Some 6,404.8 square kilometers (2,472.91 square miles) have been deforested, twice the area logged at this point last year and larger than the state of Delaware in the United States.

The images of the burning of the Amazon have led to the international condemnation of the environmental policies of Bolsonaro, who has rejected complaints, according to him, of intruders who interfere in the internal affairs of Brazil.

The townspeople in Novo Progresso were outraged at the arrival of the federal police and the Army. Cattle merchants complained that it was bad for business.

Madalena Hoffmann, former mayor of Novo Progresso, said she did not know if the August 10 fires were intentionally coordinated. He noted that deforestation has gone too far. But like many in the place, he blames the government for imposing environmental rules so complicated and strict that farmers feel they must violate the law to exercise their trade.

"Fundamentally it is the fault of the government," he said.

"ABANDONED"

Novo Progresso dates back to the early 1980s, when Brazil's military dictatorship attracted families here with the promise of land and opportunities.

The armed forces, where the retired captain of the Bolsonaro army began his career, saw the Amazon largely uninhabited as a vast asset rich in resources, vulnerable to invasion or exploitation by foreigners. The military built roads and encouraged settlement.

But by 1985, the dictatorship had fallen. The new democratic government began what would become a very different policy towards the Amazon: conservation.

"We were abandoned," said Moisés Berta, a 59-year-old rancher. Drinking coffee under the dawn sky at a bakery popular with farmers, he said he moved to Novo Progresso when he was young in 1981 hoping to start a successful farm.

Berta said the government left him and others abandoned by not guaranteeing clear titles for the lands they had worked on for years.

Having a property title makes it easier to obtain financing and eventually sell the farm. Without the title, the property is difficult to prove, which makes it easier to undertake illegal activities such as logging.

In Brazil, land ownership can be granted by demonstrating that it is being used productively, that it is not from another person and that it is not in a protected area, according to standards that Berta says its properties meet.

But 38 years after arriving, Berta still does not have the title of her property along the BR 163 highway, a vital artery for the transport of soybeans and cattle, despite repeatedly trying to register it with the federal government.

And while he doesn't have the rights to the land, holding his phone, Berta showed a document related to four cases opened against him by Ibama, the environmental protection agency.

When asked what laws he had allegedly violated, he smiled. "I have no idea," he said.

Ibama declined to comment on Berta's cases, passing a request from Reuters to the Ministry of Environment, which did not respond.

The city's farmers union says that 90% of the farmers and ranchers in the area do not have their land formally recognized by the state.

Locals say the process is complicated and that officials do not respond. Documents must be submitted in person at an office five hours by car.

Incra, the government agency responsible for issuing property titles, said in a statement sent via email that it was aware of the delay in the Amazon and that "measures were being developed to promote the issuance of the required titles."

Farmers were further enraged by the creation in 2006 of a large reserve west of Novo Progresso called Parque Nacional do Jamanxim, which they say has reduced its expansion capacity.

The federal government was trying to curb deforestation that had cleared much of the forest in the neighboring state of Mato Grosso and headed north toward Novo Progresso along BR 163.

To complicate matters, almost 500 farmers were already in the reserve when it was created. The majority refused to leave, creating a conflict that has not yet been resolved.

Many of the fires on August 10 occurred within the Jamanxim National Park, the most deforested reserve in Brazil this year, according to government figures. Since January, more than 100 square kilometers of rainforest have been cleared, an area almost twice the size of Manhattan.

Read also: Leaders from Amazon countries come together to protect the jungle

JOURNALIST IN DANGER

Agricultural interests, which support an amnesty that would let farmers stay inside Jamanxim, have found allies in the Bolsonaro government.

On Sunday, at a nearby rural fair, the Special Secretary of Land Affairs, Nabhan Garcia, told the farmers that they would get their titles.

The government, he added, was reviewing the "shame" of conservation areas and indigenous lands expanded under previous governments.

So far, state police have interviewed about 20 people in connection with "Fire Day," a person with direct knowledge of the case told Reuters. No one has been charged or arrested. The state police did not respond to a request to confirm the information.

Prosecutors say they suspect that organizers used Whatsapp to coordinate fires along BR 163 as a public challenge to environmental regulations. The Jamanxim forest fires, they say, were probably the work of land hoarders.

"That is a coordinated invasion to force the area to farmland," a second police source told Reuters. The sources requested anonymity since they are not authorized to speak with the media.

Journalist Piran believes he is still in danger. A brochure has circulated that denounces him as a liar and an extortionist who lit the fire himself has circulated throughout the city.

Although he no longer hides, he continues to avoid going out at night. Police have asked state prosecutors to enroll in a witness protection program.

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