Located in the northwest of Brazil, Roraima, which was upgraded from territory to state
in 1988, is the least populated of the 26 Brazilian states, with a mere 1.16 inhabitant by
square km (0.39 square mile). Brazil’s extreme northern point, the Roraima mount at the
Pacaraima mountain range, is in Roraima, right on the border with Venezuela and Guyana.
According to the 1995 census, the state has 262,201 residents, 40,000 of whom are
Indians, constituting the third largest Indian population in the country. The reservations
take up half of the state 225,116 square km (86,900 square miles) territory, roughly the
size of Utah. The native presence, especially of the Yanomami, whose reservation occupies
9.4 million hectares, has created several conflicts. Many see it as an impediment to the
growth of the state.
Roraimenses contribute a diminutive 0.11% to the Gross Domestic Product. The main crops
in the area are manioc, orange and corn. They also raise cattle and swine. Logging,
diamond and gold mining, and ceramics are some of the other economic activities.
Despite all the uproar in the last two decades and a half, the
Amazon is still an impressive and mostly intact forest with a size two thirds of the
By For the stone-age Yanomami Indians, the end of the world seemed
imminent in March when the smoke from out-of-control fires in the state of Roraima invaded
their settlements. Smoke for them means trouble and forebodes bad tides. Without
foodrivers were drying up, game was killed or fled, fruits and plantations
burnedthey had to do something they avoid: to look for food among the white man.
"Since the area in which they live is covered by smoke, the
Yanomami are very depressed," said French anthropologist Bruce Albert who has lived
among the Indians since the ’70s. "This is for them like a sign of the
Apocalypse." For all other Roraima’s residents, these were also trying times. What’s
believed to be the worst blaze ever in the Amazon destroyed houses and culture fields,
killed animals and burned virgin forests that may have been destroyed beyond any possible
Amid all this tragedy there was a sad and disturbing behavior: that of
the Brazilian authorities who let it all burn down until they were pressed into action by
the international press outrage.
Roraima, a wedge of jungle and savanna between Guyana and Venezuela has caught fire.
Out-of-control flames in a poverty-stricken frontier land in the middle of the Amazon
jungle, which for so-long has been called the lungs of the planet, has once again served
as a wake-up call for the world. Are these signs of times to come, in which the world’s
most important ecosystem will apocalyptically end up in flames?
Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, had never seen so many foreign and illustrious
people. At the end of March, the few hotels and lodges in town were filled to capacity.
Politicians, including presidential hopeful Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and former
President José Sarney; foreign and Brazilian journalists; members from several worldwide
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), they all flocked to the city. The gathering had all
the makings of an ecological bash inside the Amazon jungle if it weren’t for all the human
suffering and the ecological tragedy taking place.
Clearing fields with fire is a common practice in the Amazon. It is used as a fast and
cheap way to clear the terrain in preparation for planting by big companies as well as the
caboclos (poor settlers who live in the region) and the Indians themselves. The law
forbids the use of fire for clearing fields, but the slash and burn method is used
routinely by ranchers and farmers who can be sure of their impunity.
It was this traditional practice that misfired this time and the flames raged out of
control. Add to this the fact that Roraima was hit by a harsh period of droughtBoa
Vista saw only 30 mm of rain from September to March, 8% of the rain it usually
getsbrought in by El Niño and the presence of strong winds, and we have a perfect
recipe for a catastrophe. Together, all these ingredients concocted the worst fires ever
in the region registered in books or that anyone can remember.
The military accused big and subsistence farmers of keeping on setting their fields
ablaze even after the fires got out of control because they heard that the government
would pardon the bank loans of those hit by the fires. Accused of causing the Amazon
catastrophe, small farmers don’t seem to feel any guilt. Talking to weekly newsmagazine, Isto
É, Mariano Pereira, a 55-year-old small farmer who cultivates manioc and rice in the
municipality of Mucajaí, explained: "We don’t have a tractor, young man. The only
way is to burn when we need to plant ".
Not everybody is blaming El Niño and the farmers, though, for the drought and the
ensuing fires. Environmentalist José Lutzenberger, for example, believes that the main
cause of the Roraima’s fires is the forest devastation occurring in the state of Pará.
Lutzenberger, who was Environment Secretary during the Fernando Collor de Mello
administration, says that the Amazon creates its own weather.
According to him, the cutting of big trees in Pará has prevented what he calls
evapotranspiration, which occurs in the heart of the rainforest. There the vegetation is
so thick that 20% of the rain never reaches the soil staying over the canopy evaporating
and forming clouds. Two thirds of the water that infiltrates the land through the
transpiration of the plants form other clouds that irrigate faraway parts of the forest.
Without trees the rainwater is being absorbed by the soil or running to the rivers.
Lutzenberger, who is an agronomy engineer, explains: "Before, the humid and green
forest didn’t burn. Now, a little burning in a rancher’s field causes such a huge fire
because the region doesn’t see rain for two, three months."
And he added: "It is now fashionable to blame El Niño for everything, but this
phenomenon might have contributed only secondarily for the little rain in the
Lutzenberger accuses the federal government of never "giving a damn" to the
devastation in the Amazon, which according to him has reached 500,000 square km (193,000
square miles), an area bigger than California and slightly smaller than France.
In January the fires were already out of control, what led the state of Roraima to
declare a state of emergency. Appeals in the newspapers, radio and TV that farmers stop
burning their fields went unheeded. Subsistence farmers, Indians and big proprietors stuck
to their traditional way of slashing and burning. In the past the burning could be easily
controlled due to the high humidity of the area and the primary rainforest. A three-month
drought has changed this scenario, though.
The Ibama (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais
RenováveisBrazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) has
forbidden the use of controlled fire in all the areas hit by the drought even those
utilized for the subsistence cultures. Government-owned Rádio Nacional da Amazônia was
expected to start, though a little late, a campaign to educate the public about the risks
of using fire to clear the land.
"A lot of trees burned in their bases are dying, so next year there will be more
burning, and it will be even worse," said Professor Philip Fearnside of INPA
(Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da AmazôniaNational Institute for Amazonian
Research), a non-governmental organization linked to Universidade Federal do Pará. He
adds: "We have started a process in motion, which will destroy the whole
By the end of March there was talk that 19,000 square miles of Roraima’s forest and
savanna had already been burned. The numbers varied wildly, however, not only because of
the difficulty to measure the extent of the blaze, but also due to shifting political
interests. The government would inflate some numbers to get more help, for example, or
would cut a little the size of the estimate not to seem too irresponsible in the face of
How much damage have the fires caused? Estimates varied wildly from 6,000 square km
(2,300 square miles) to 30,000 square km (11,500 square miles)that would be size of
a country like Belgiumwere either burned or at risk. Satellite photos released in
the last week of March showed that about 13,200 square milesabout 15% of the state
of Roraimahad been charred by the blaze.
From March 15 to March 25. the fire spots increased almost five times. When Ibama’s
technicians flew over the state in mid-March they detected 10 hot spots. Ten days later
they were able to count 28 different blaze locations, without counting the southeast
region of the state where controlled burning is also done by farmers. Since each spot
represents a minimum of five focuses they concluded that there were a minimum of 250
different fires ravaging Roraima’s forests. According to INPA, the fires consumed 31,000
square km (12,000 square miles) of cerrado (savanna), 4,200 sq. km (1,600 square
miles) of areas in which the forest had been cut, and 1,800 of virgin forest inside the
Yanomami reservation, representing more than 15% of Roraima’s territory.
At the peak of the fires a cloud of white smoke was covering Boa Vista and visibility
was reduced to a mere 100 feet. Breathing became difficult for the 180,000 residents. All
around cars were using their lights during the day as a precautionary measure. And some
cautious people were walking with masks and damp cloths covering their faces. People with
respiratory problems, mostly children and the elderly, filled up hospital beds. Besides
human suffering, Roraima paid a hefty price in many other areas. Homes have been burned
down, several crops were wiped out. Mal-nutrition increased among the caboclos and
their families, who often grow some of their foodrice and corn are common
culturesdespite an emergency food program started by the state government.
In Boa Vista hospitals were overflowing. Most of the people were being treated for
respiratory diseases, but there were also cases of anemia and dysentery. For lack of beds,
many had to go back home and wait there for the doctor. Every doctor available was being
pressed into service. Even a group of Cuban physicians who were in town for conferences
were giving assistance to the population. "I never imagined that I would be one day
in the middle of such a tragedy," declared Osmel Rodriguez, one of the Cuban doctors.
Indians have also lost their cabins and crops. Reporter Alexandre Medeiros from Jornal
do Brasil told the story of 60-year-old Wapixana Indian, Augusto Gomes da Silva, with
a wife and two children. He had no food and there was little water left. After losing
everything he had planted, Silva stood guard at his house to prevent it from being
consumed by the flames. "I am not going to eat, I am not going to sleep," he
said. "I’ll just stay here waiting for the fire to come so I can wrestle with
This was not an isolated case. Most of the plantations were burned around Boa Vista.
The cattle were also suffering from lack of pasture and water. After saving human lives,
the priority of the fight against the fire was to preserve the few pasture areas left
untouched by the flames. On both sides of BR-174, a road linking Boa Vista to the
Venezuelan city of Santa Elena de Uiarén, there cattle grazing on torched grass. beside igarapés
(river arms) that dried out. Some were skeletal and could barely walk. Some fell down and
needed help to get up.
The government started to distribute food baskets among the small farmers. Reaching the
Indians, however, was a bigger problem, since many Indian areas can only be reached by
plane, and flight in the region was hampered by the smoke.
The blaze began in January. However, only on March 26 the Environment Minister, Gustavo
Krause, sent his request for help to the World Bank and only after that bank offered $5
million to help fight the flames. The request was preceded by a three-hour meeting between
President Cardoso, his close aides and the military ministers.
After having offered help since November, by the end of March United Nations officials
were very frustrated and getting edgy. They even placed a team of seven experts on alert
while waiting for an OK from the Brazilian government. "I hope the green light will
arrive before the weekend because I cannot maintain my team on alert waiting for too
long," said an impatient Gerard Putman-Crame, chief of the UN agency in charge of
Sarah Tyac, spokeswoman for NGO Friends of the Earth, seem to have spoken in the name
of environmentalists the world over, including in Brazil, when she said : "We are all
nonplussed with the Brazilian government’s refusal to accept help. The Brazilian
authorities should wake up to the fact that these fires are causing regional and global
damage. This problem needs to be solved immediately. If Brazil is not prepared to solve
them alone, it needs to accept aid from the rest of the world."
Carlos Pereira Monteiro, chief of the UN mission, called the blaze "an
environmental disaster without precedent on this planet." He and his team didn’t
arrive to the scene before the rains had extinguished most of the fire. They were
impressed though by the total lack of information about the effects of the fires and the
way land is distributed in the area.
They were expected to make some recommendations, even more necessary since new fires
similar to those in Roraima are expected in other areas of the Amazon. Walter Franco, the
UN representative in Brazil said that the south of the Amazon might suffer a blaze even
worse than that in Roraima around the month of June. The dry season in the area starts at
the end of April. At the beginning of April, no Brazilian agency had data about losses
caused by the fires including the number of cattle killed, houses burned, bridges
destroyed, and plantation fields razed.
On March 30, a congressional commission went to the Boa Vista Area to start an
investigation on who was responsible for the delay on fighting the fires. Former President
and now House Representative José Sarney, one of the members of the investigative group,
criticized the situation: "It is sad to know that only after the international
community called attention to the problem, the government took measures."
It also didn’t work in the government’s favor that neither the Environment Minister,
Gustavo Krause, nor President Fernando Cardoso found time to visit Roraima for a close-up
look at the ecological tragedy. Krause was the big absent not participating in any
discussion to end the fires, not even at the end when the federal government under
international pressure was forced to take a position. Krause, who wants to be reelected to
the House of Representatives, was out of Brasília on the campaign trail, denied that the
government was negligent: "What we had was an unexpected disaster," he said as
Brazil and Brazilian military in particular have always been wary of foreign presence
in the Amazon on grounds of national security. Trying to dispel the notion that this
nationalistic pride had contributed to the extension of the disaster, presidential
spokesman Sérgio Amaral declared that "There is no resistance to international help
as long as it conforms to Brazilian needs." Pressed by the military, Cardoso decided
to create taskforces to analyze every foreign offer of help. After much international
pressure, Brasília let it to be known that it was ready to receive help in the form of
technicians, firefighters, and equipment. It was against the idea, however, of letting a
military multinational force, informally known as green helmets, enter the country.
The whole world was offering help. Russia made available two water-carrying airplanes,
the U.S. had some forest fire specialists ready to go to Brazil to help assess the
situation. Brazilian neighbors, though, had an easier time to have their offer for help
accepted. Argentinean and Venezuelan firefighters were the first to arrive even before
Brazilians from other states. The men from Venezuela, with a personal stake on the
disaster, remained in Pacaraima, a city where the flames were threatening to cross the
frontier into Venezuelan territory.
Argentina’s willingness to help and the efficiency of its aid gave Brasília’s
officials cause for pause. Some of the President’s aides, with apparent jealousy, confided
they were mortified at their own inability to deal with the international public opinion,
while president Carlos Menem used the episode to his own electoral benefit. Brazilian
officials also contended that the fire was raging even stronger in Guyana and Venezuela:
"This a problem of three countries," complained a diplomat, "but all you
hear about is Brazil."
Roraima’s governor, Neudo Campos, from PPB (Partido Progressista
BrasileiroBrazilian Progressive Party) blamed the federal government for delaying
sending resources and helping to fight the fire. "We still didn’t get a cent until
now," he told reporters on March 26, two months after having declared a state of
emergency. "In the meantime, the fire continues to spread," he added. Campos
also criticized the Cardoso administration for taking so long before accepting foreign
help. "When Argentina offered its help, I accepted immediately, he said. "And
the next day they were here."
Campos wasn’t that trustworthy himself. After saying that the blaze had consumed 1/4 of
his state, he dramatically lowered this number to 3% (1.5 million acres). And while
reporters in the area could hardly find any animal carcass, the governor blamed the fire
for the death of 20,000 cattle, a figure that later was lowered to 12,000. The Government
also estimated that 15,000 families were severely affected.
Wilson Précoma, Funai’s (Fundação Nacional do ÍndioIndian National
Foundation) attorney in Boa Vista, accuses Roraima’s governor of having kept secret the
gravity of the blaze in order to get federal help. Précoma says that the state
authorities waited until the fires had become an unmanageable catastrophe. He adds that
the farmers also contributed to make things worse: "They are using the fire to remove
the Indians from their lands. After the forest is burned they intend to convert the whole
area into pasture."
Governor Neudo Campos denies any wrongdoing, however, saying that he had alerted the
federal government back in January when he declared estado de calamidade pública (state
of emergency) due to the drought. Campos adds that until February the fires burning in the
state were those normally used to prepare the land for planting. On March 9, the governor
asked $15 million from Brasília. Ageu Florêncio da Silva, Federal Prosecutor based in
Roraima is also looking into the case. "I suspect that state authorities delayed
taking any measure for political reason," the prosecutor told reporters.
Information and numbers on the fires coming from several sources, unreliable and often
contradictory. How much of Roraima’s territory was consumed by the flames? Twenty eight
percent some experts were saying, 12% contended others, while there were more conservative
approaches that were placing the devastation at 3% of the state land. Flooded with media
from all over the world, the Campos administration was having a hard time getting the
facts straight. An official handout during a press conference in the last week of March
listed three different numbers as the size of Roraima. Instead of giving subsidies to the
press, Kléber Cerquinho, Roraima’s Civil Defense Chief, was using reports made by
journalists to monitor the fires, since he wasn’t able to communicate with his people on
The Governor has plans to use the international aid to implement a $6-million program
of environmental education for the population in general and the children in particular,
build 6,000 barrages along the igarapés that proliferate in the state, and create
a brigade specialized in forest fire. While some authorities said that only St. Peter
would be able to solve the problem, sending rain to the area, Gilberto Mendes, a
firefighting expert from Rio de Janeiro estimated at first that 1,000 firefighters would
be enough to put out the fire. At a closer look, however, he changed this figure to
The burning forest has become the central theme of the political campaign for governor.
Elections will be held in October. While Campos, who wants to be reelected, accused the
opposition of painting a rosier scenario of the situation in order to delay federal help,
the governor’s foes blamed him for not being able to take a more prompt and decisive
action against the ecological tragedy. Opposition presidential candidate leftist Luiz
Inácio Lula da Silva from PT (Partido dos TrabalhadoresWorkers’ Party) has also
used the incident to point to the shortcomings of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
Apiaú is a diminutive village with 328 residents. The area ravaged by fire is also
Roraima’s main agricultural zone. The presence of Brazilians and Argentineans side by
side, in Apiaúthe center of operations against the fire, 80 miles from Boa
Vistahas served as a sobering lesson in contrast. While Argentina’s team was formed
by 127 experienced firefighterssome of them doctorscarrying state-of-the art
equipment and personal gear, Brazil’s initial contingent was composed by a group of brave
Even the military personnel who arrived early in the scene gave a heart-breaking,
pathetic demonstration of incompetence and lack of resources: without any special gear
these heroic and unprepared men got inside the jungle armed with big knifes and small
water pumps in their bare hands. To smother the fire they used fallen palm branches. The
Brazilian army assumed control of the firefighting operation only on March 19.
The Argentinean team, on the other hand, brought four helicopters equipped with the
Bambi Bucket, a pail-like device capable of carrying 1,000 liters (260 gallons) of water.
Their method of using helicopter to drop water over the fire was initially criticized and
then copied by the Brazilians when it was proven effective. Gerardo Elst, 39, one of the
Argentineans, who works as a firefighter for 17 years, said that nothing he had done
before prepared him for the Roraima inferno.
The fires grew so much that Brazilians and Argentinean firefighting teams seemed
sometimes a band of rowdy toddlers throwing the content of their beach pails against the
flames. At times the helicopters had to be grounded due to the excessive smoke. Inside the
jungle the combat against the fire brings additional risks to the already extremely risky
job of fighting blazes. Brazilians firefighters were having close encounterstoo
close for comfort sometimeswith snakes and jaguars. They were also taking special
precaution not to getting lost or being choked by the smoke that doesn’t dissipate easily
under the jungle’s canopy.
They were walking in line inside the forest not more than seven feet apart. Each man
got a number according to his position in the line and every once in while everyone was
called to make sure nobody got lost. They might walk up to two hours before finding a hot
spot. When one was found they would try to clear the area around and smother the blaze.
The firefighters’ effort seemed successful when the flames disappeared. The next day,
however, some hot spots reignited and the fight started all over again.
Apiaú never saw so much agitation. Beer sold out in the local bar where Antônio
Altevir, the owner, was beaming with his booming business: "Before, I used to sell
$100 a day, but now I am selling $500," he told a reporter of daily Folha de São
Paulo. The foreign presence has also raised the excitement among the women in town.
Said Nádia David dos Santos, the town administrator’s wife: "These Argentinean have
brought us a lot of joy. The girls are way excited, but we have to rein in, because with
teenagers you never know."
Firefighters from Distrito Federal, Amazonas, and Minas Gerais joined in the effort in
the last week of March raising from 500 to 800 the number of men fighting the blaze. But
the amount of smoke that covered almost all the statedue in part to many fires that
extinguishedmade it almost impossible for the helicopters to be used. At the height
of the effort to fight the flames there were 1,700 firefighters from all over the country,
including some elite firefighters from Brasília, Rio de Janeiro, and Rio Grande do Sul.
The biggest problem, said the operation commander, general of brigade Luiz Edmundo Maia
de Carvalho, commander of the first Brigade of Forest Infantry, was the resurgence of fire
after they had been put out. Carvalho was the same man who, when asked by reporters, on
March 26, if he was going to accept help offered by the United Nations, answered: "If
they are offering men and equipment, I don’t need them. We are already arranging to get
the necessary resources and I don’t believe Brazil is going to accept this help."
Confronted with the news that Sérgio Amaral, the presidential spokesman, had announced
that help had been accepted, the general commented: "This is probably a
misinformation." By declaring that international help was dispensable, general
Carvalho didn’t help the image Brazil wanted to create as a nation responsible and
respectful of its natural treasure.
Through the humanitarian group Cáritas, the Catholic Church started a national
campaign to collect money, food and clothes for the people, Indians and caboclos,
dislodged by the fires. SOS Roraima, the campaign launched by CNBB (Conferência Nacional
dos Bispos do BrasilNational Conference of Bishops of Brazil), intended to collect
money to buy food in all 7,000 Catholic parishes in the country.
The Catholic Church calculated that 2.400 families were made homeless by the fires in
Roraima. Their goal is to buy 150 tons of food. The contribution can also be sent to a
special banking account established in a Brasília branch of Banco do Brasil. The account
number: 222.000-8. The bank’s branch number: 3475-4. The check should made to Cáritas
STATE OF THE ART
The Brazilian participation wasn’t always improvised and amateurish. Among the
Brazilian high-tech agencies helping to fight the blaze there was the Environment
Monitoring Nucleus from Embrapa (Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa
AgropecuáriaBrazilian Agency for Agricultural and Cattle Research) from Campinas,
in the state of São Paulo. They already have installations in Boa Vista and were ready to
take a new team with computers, antennas and a system for capturing satellite images.
According to Evaristo de Miranda, research manager of the unit, his group receives
images from 40 satellites and since the beginning of the decade they have being following
the deforestation of Roraima at a rate of 250 square km (97 square miles) a year. Miranda
said the efforts to extinguish the fires were futile and agreed with the government policy
of concentrating its efforts in saving lives by attacking fires that threatened populated
areas. "The fire is uncontrollable. Saint Peter is the only one capable of
extinguishing it," resignedly he told O Estado de S. Paulo. He also expressed
his belief that Brazil can do without any international help.
The biggest problem in the Roraima fire was the forest, which makes up 72% of the
state’s territory. While the flames advanced much quicker in the savanna areas with
shorter and thinner vegetationthey represent 18% of the territory regeneration
in these areas, which use the ashes as fertilizer, might take a little as six months. By
the end of March 70% of the savannas had already been charred.
Technicians at INPE (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas EspaciaisNational Institute
of Space Research) have been poring over data in order to analyze the fire’s impact on the
local ecosystem. They believe it could take decades before the forest area hit by the
flames goes back to its old self. "Some species will not stage a comeback in many,
many years, " said INPE’s forest science expert João Roberto dos Santos. In the
thicker areas of vegetation the fire might cause irreversible damage since 30% of the 106
species catalogued by the INPE in the area will never grow back.
The INPE uses images sent by the Yankee Landsat satellite that flies over Roraima every
16 days at an altitude of 400 miles. The thick smoke, which prevents satellites from
taking pictures of the area, has made difficult a precise assessment of the situation. Any
picture would be useless anyway before they fix the Cuiabácapital of Mato Grosso,
1,300 miles southwest of Boa Vistasatellite ground station that is broken.
For João Roberto dos Santos, an expert in forest science, the Roraima fires were a
catastrophe forewarned. He reminds that satellites had detected the first hot spots last
August, but the warnings were not taken seriously. For him, small farmers and
bio-diversity were the worst hit by the blaze. Flora and fauna have suffered incalculable
losses, he says. Some species like the tamanduá bandeira, who is slow and
incapable of fleeing from the fire will be dramatically reduced in the area hit by the
flames. Santos says the extension of the damages will not be known before May, when the
skies should again be clear enough for the American satellite NOAA to take pictures of the
Ibama’s forest engineer, Giovanni Cornacchia, who was sent to Boa Vista to monitor the
fire, believes that the press has exaggerated the gravity of the blaze in Roraima and he
is worried with the image of the destruction being portrayed around the world.
"People think that the blaze is like a fire-thrower hitting the forest, but it is not
happening like that," he says. The damage being caused by the fire is many times
smaller than it would be in a classic blaze, which normally reaches the top of the
According to Cornacchia, the fire is burning under the big trees, but sparing the trunk
and the top and the animals being killed are only those that that are too slow to escape.
He says that there is no immediate danger to the green coverage of the Amazon even though
the areas burned will more susceptible to new fires. For Reinaldo Barbosa, a researcher
from INPA, the causes of the fires ultimately go back to the military dictatorship that
started in 1964 and lasted until 1985, a time in which small farmers were encouraged to
occupy and cultivate the Amazon region without getting any official back up, in a tacit
promotion of the slash-and-burn policy. Said Barbosa: "This blaze started more than
20 years ago when the Médici administration started to disorderly settle this
But Barbosa does not spare today’s authorities, who according to him should know
better: "At the end of 1995 NASA had announced that El Niño might cause problems
like this and in the middle of last year our Institute warned again about this
THE FRONT LINE
The international press flocked to the area. In a dispatch from Boa Vista, Washington
Post correspondent, Anthony Faiola, described his encounter with the raging flames:
"Amid choking smoke and the crackle of flame, Geraldo Elst gave the signal for the
helicopter overhead to empty its water tanks. The pilot missed his target, and Elst, eyes
tearing from the searing heat, just shrugged helplessly. "This is an impossible
mission," said Elst, part of a multinational team of 500 firefighters recently
brought in to battle what Brazilians are calling the largest conflagration since 1925 in
the Amazon rain forest, home to more than half of the world’s known plant and animal
Correio Braziliense’s staff writer Vannildo Mendes talked to residents from Boa
Vista who lost all to the fire. One of them was José Wilson Ferreira, who with his wife
Erisbete and two little daughters talked about restarting his life, after losing his house
and plantation. They were left with 15 cattle and 60 deer, which were taken to a
neighbor’s pasture. "We have to start from scratch" complained Erisbete.
"God only knows if we are gonna make it."
There is also the story of Leide Dayane (an apparent homage do Lady Diane), a girl of
13, whose parents are small farmers at Apiaú’s Colônia Agrícola. She suffers from
asthma and had to be taken to the hospital due to the excess of smoke. Leide started a
campaign in her school to encourage other farmers to stop using fire to clear their land.
"I would like the adults to understand that fire destroys nature and
themselves," she said.
Early April, at least two Indian settlementsthe Ajarani and the Mucajaí, both
from the nomadic Yanomami ethnicitywere encircled by fire. The Yanomami are the
world’s largest Stone Age tribe. With their plantations burned; without game, which was
scared off by the blaze; and with little fish since the waterways dried out in many
places, the natives there were suffering of malnutrition. They don’t stock their food,
only taking the necessary for a day or two. The Yanomami accused the government of trying
to deceive them. While the Yanomami Park Creation Commission warned that hundreds of
Yanomamis were surrounded by the fires in neighboring Amazonas state, federal authorities
guaranteed that the flames were at least 60 miles away.
Most of the Yanomami aldeias are in an area known as Baixo Mucajaí. They were
not getting new stocks of medicine either because due to the thick smoke, government
planes that periodically visit the aldeias were not able to fly there. Davi
Yanomami, arguably the best-known Yanomami leader, talked about being approached by Indian
mothers worried with their children’s survival. Davi said to believe that the authorities
could save them from this predicament if they wanted: "Government has money,
government has helicopter, government puts out fire," he commented.
Ninety-one riflemen from the Army’s Forest Battalion backed by helicopters and
Brasília’s very effective firefighters’ force, were sent to the area to try to keep the
fires at bay. Several of the Indians from these aldeias, however, have fled into
the deeper jungle. There are 7,000 Yanomami in Roraima occupying a huge area of 9.5
million hectares, which is the size of their reservation in the state.
Among the animals that were not fast enough to escape the fire were pacas,
snakes, turtles, and capybaras, all of them part of the Yanomami diet. As pointed by
Yanomami cacique (chief) Peri Xerixana the very appreciated fruits like apatoá,
abacaba, and abiu also disappeared in the fire. "We have a little water
left," said Avelino Loyola, another Indian chief, "but very little manioc flour
or rice, corn, and roots."
The fires hit the Yanomami also in other ways. With the sanitary teams unable to reach
the Indians, the number of Yanomami attacked by malaria increased. In a group of 888
Indians 515 had the disease. The government was also preparing food baskets to distribute
among the Indians. One of the problems, however, was what to include in the package since
most of the natives, among other items, do not eat frozen chicken or beef.
Other Indian tribes also had to fight for their survival and some indigenous peoples
from areas not threatened by the fire showed their solidarity by offering their help. Two
Kayapo pajés (shamans) from the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, were taken by Funai
(Fundação Nacional do ÍndioNational Indian Foundation) to the Yanomami
reservation to execute the rain dance ritual.
The rain ceremony was done secretly by the two pajés Kukrit e Mantii, on the
banks of the Curupira river. The invocation to the god, Kororoti, could not be seen by
non-Indians. The rite includes a heart-to-heart talk with the spirits of the Indians
forefather, the shamans explained to reporters. These spirits are the ones responsible to
address their requests to the rain and thunder spirits. "The rain is going to start
and then it will never stop," they guaranteed .
The dance ceremony drew criticism from all quarters. The Yanomami themselves contended
that they had their own rainmaker xaboris (shamans) and did not need other tribes
help. The press has accused Funai of taking too seriously and giving a scientific aura to
a folkloric costume.
"It makes no sense spending taxpayer’s money with a somewhat absurd thing, when
the drought and the fire are leaving the Indians without having what they need to
eat," complained Adalberto Silva, vice-president of CIR (Conselho Indígena de
RoraimaRoraima’s Indigenist Council). Silva believes that the money would have been
better spent on medicine or food: "We cannot understand Kayapo xabori,"
said João Davi, 36, chief from the Papiú Novo aldeia. "Kayapo is a different
nation. Funai’s is using our suffering to promote itself."
Walter Blos, Funai’s administrator told reporters that he didn’t understand all the
fuss about the rainmaking ceremony, which for him is the "natural thing to do."
As a kind of poetic justiceand a fast one for that matter for those who
defended the ritual, just a few hours after the night ceremony the rain started to pour on
the morning of March 31. This was the first strong rain in the area in the last six months
and the meteorology services were expecting heavy rains only by mid April. The rain lasted
four hours. The pajés went to the street to celebrate for the delight of the
cameras from all over the world.
"If it is a coincidence or not, I don’t know, but it certainly seems to have done
the trick," said Alan Suassuna, spokesman for Funai in Boa Vista. According to
Suassuna, 80 to 90 percent of the fires had been quenched by that rain. The Army also had
plans for making rain, even though in a slightly different way. Funceme (Fundação
Cearense de MeteorologiaCeará’s Meteorology Foundation) was contacted to study the
possibility of bombarding the clouds over the burning region with silver iodide flares,
just before the rains started.
A LITTLE IRONY
The fires were still raging uncontrollably in the north of the country on March 30 when
premiered the new Environmental Crimes Law. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso had signed
the legislation on February 13. You can’t ignore the irony, though, that penalties against
those who provoke blazes for burning their fields to clear the land, were taken off the
bill at the last minute by Cardoso, under pressure from the ruralist caucus, a group of
congressmen backed by big farmers or farmers themselves. The law intends to punish those
who commit "aggressions against the environment". The penalties go from $50 to
$50 million and might include jail term.
The National Media Reaction
The Brazilian press was unanimous on condemning the way government
managed the Roraima disaster, especially the refusal on receiving foreign help. However,
few media outlets, if any, noticed that the fires only became front page news in Brazil
after the international press started reporting the blaze.
In a March 29 commentary on Correio Braziliense, the most traditional and
respected daily of Brasília, Brazil’s capital, special editor Kido Guerra wrote in a
commentary entitled "The Amazônia is ours!":
"More alarming than the blaze in Roraima it was the disregard with which the
tragedy was treated until last week by the federal government. Once again it was necessary
that environmental NGOs, habitually considered by serious people in the press and the
government as "alarmist and catastrophist", made a big scene. Only then
Brasília recognized the extent of the tragedy and decided to act to extinguish the fire.
"Besides doing nothing to avoid the blaze, the federal authorities took a long
time to take action even after the fire started to consume the state. Even the Argentinean
and Venezuelan firefighters arrived earlier. Any moderately informed neophyte ecologist or
a sympathizer of the ecological cause knows that behind this apparent ecological concern
big economic interests are hidden: the Amazon is an invaluable source of vegetable
species, with a still-unknown bio-diversity. Without mentioning its subsoil, apparently
too rich to stay in Latin-American hands. (…)
"What remains of this monumental blaze that devastates Roraima is the impression
that the Amazon really seems not to be in good hands. In delaying to take action to put
out the fire, Brazil gave proof of its incompetence and offered ammunition to those who
want to internationalize the Amazon. This way it is hard to convince the world that we
know how to take care of our share of the Amazon. Besides the environmental disaster of
Amazonian proportions, the image itself of Brazil comes outno pun
intendedcharred from this episode."
The military lack of action followed by its initial refusal to accept any foreign help
has irked many journalists. Writing in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, the daily
with the largest circulation in the country (850,000 copies on Sundays), writer Luiz
Carvesan panned the Army for its role in the disaster and even wondered if there still is
a place for an Army: "It is incredible that the Armed Forces would take so long
before finally deciding to do something to try to contain the monstrous fire that
decimates forests in the North of the country.
"After weeks of flames consuming ecological sanctuaries and laying to waste a
natural patrimony formed during thousands of years and that represents one of the most
admirable treasures of the planet, the Army now says that they are going to lead the
combat against the fire. This is something that should have been done in the minute they
became aware of the true extension of the ecological accident that the criminal burning of
the Roraima has become.
"But the Army didn’t go there because of the fire itself or because the protection
of the country’s territorial patrimony is one of its obligations. No, they sent their
troops because the military felt hurt in their nationalistic pride, since the fires were
drawing an international task-force, made up with military from other countries, who more
sensitive than the Brazilians had already mobilized themselves.
"Facing the "foreign invasion" the Army decided to budge and end the
idleness for at least a portion of thousands of soldiers it maintains throughout the
country without a thing to do. Better late than never? Maybe. At least this is a good time
for us to question, once again, why do we need Armed Forces in times of peace.
All Yet to
Rio’s moderate daily Jornal do Brasil has also expressed its outrage in an
editorial entitled "Jungle’s Agony":
"The recipe for this destruction combines the traditional primitivism of
indiscriminate burning with a drought prolonged by the El Niño effect and strong winds
that spread the flames through the dry vegetation. The official want of foresight towards
ecological scourges in remote spots and the delay in mobilizing national and international
means complete the tragedy’s tableau.
"In lieu of fast, decisive, massive, coordinated actions we were offered scattered
efforts, absence of preventive policies, disdain for the international know-how and aid.
Powerless, the local authorities can’t agree either on the gravity of the fire or on how
long it will take to put it out. While Governor Neudo Campos says the situation is out of
control, the federal government’s civil defense coordinator, colonel José Wilson Pereira,
swears that the fire is limited. But the Amazon’s commander, general Luiz Gonzaga
Schroeder Lessa, believes that the combat against the fire will be long and unpredictable.
"The Roraima tragedy is an alert that everything is yet to be done in the Amazon
environmental defense chapter and that the national mobilization is indispensable to avoid
the amplification of a devastation of unpredictable proportions."
Liberal Folha de São Paulo, the largest Brazilian daily, also lambasted the
federal government’s total lack of initiative. The criticism appeared in a March 30th
editorial entitled "The Fire Is Ours":
"After three months and at least 9,000 square km (3,500 square miles). destroyed
by fire, there is more information on how negligence and irresponsibility contribute to
Roraima’s environmental catastrophe. At this point in time, the international aid under
Brazilian command is not only welcome but necessary.
"It is correct the concern about not accepting precedents that might serve to
future external interventions made without the national state’s consent. But the
deplorable performance of the Brazilian authorities in combating the fire must be
condemned also for reinforcing the image that less-developed countries irresponsibly allow
the destruction of its natural reserves.
"In fact, two months ago the local Ibama (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e
dos Recursos Naturais RenováveisBrazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable
Natural Resources) sounded the alert about the risks of the land burning. The National
Institute of Space Research also has the capacity to monitor fires. Ibama’s information,
however, circulated in Brasília to no avail. Only now the pictures received by the
INPEwhich began to be sent faster by satelliteare orienting the work.
"The federal administration started to really act only last week after the tragedy
had made big news in the international media. So, it is not surprising at all that the
main fire spot is out of control according to an evaluation taken to President Fernando
Henrique Cardoso by the Foreign Relations Chamber and the National Defense.
"Some personalities, especially military, gave the impression that nationalism in
fighting the fire is more important than protecting the patrimony that the fire destroys.
But it would be an exaggeration to lay the blame for the environmental disaster to this
attitude. Several national institutions, the press included, were unprepared to perceive
the problem’s extension. It was pure incompetence. Foreign aid is compatible with the
respect to national sovereignty."
Veja, Brazil’s main weekly magazine, more editorialized than covered the fire on
the issue dated April 1, 1998. Entitled "Fire, Omission and Bravado", the
article signed by Klester Cavalcanti and Vladimir Netto, chastised the government for its
"Due to El Niño, last week people were fighting fires in countries like
Australia, Indonesia, and Venezuela, all of them as large as the one that assaulted
Roraima. The difference is that in Brazil to the ecological disaster was added the
governmental disaster. Since last year the government was being alerted to the dangers of
the burning in Roraima due to the dimension of the climatic phenomenon."
Veja goes on to say that in November 1997 the Brazilian government had received
a letter from Vladimir Sakharov, UN’s coordinator of humanitarian affairs, offering any
help Brazil might ask. The offer was repeated in December of last year and then in March,
revealed the magazine.
"(Sakharov) only obtained an answer this last Friday when the fire was already out
of control. The government decided that it will accept help, as long as it is under
Brazilians’ coordination. If it had acted earlier it could have saved Roraima from
And the article continues on the same tone:
"As it has always happened in disasters dealing with the Amazon, the government
only acted when the international press started to show images of the fire and to denounce
the omission of the authorities. Also as it always happens, it tried to minimize the
disaster and took from the vest’s pocket a trite nationalistic bravado. To admit foreign
aid, according to the military and a good portion of the government, would be to admit
Brazilian failure in managing the Amazon. Therefore it would bestill according to
this visionto open the doors to intervention in the region by other countries. This
is what the military during years called, paranoiacly as the "Amazon
"Few times have we seen such a narrow-minded exhibition of antiquated nationalism.
It is as if Brazil had stopped in time, more exactly in the ’60s, when the military
paranoia towards the Amazon started. There was talk, already at that time, that other
countries, especially the U.S., had plans to take from Brazil the sovereignty over the
All, But Unpredictable
For the traditional newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, which for years has been
leading a preservationist campaign in the country, the authorities omission in Roraima is
incomprehensible and unforgivable. In an article showing all the cutting edge technology
the Union has at its disposal and the bad use the government made of it, journalist Liana
"The environmental disaster that befalls Roraima, with the spread of fires and
out-of-control burning, admits several adjectives: uncontrollable, impressive,
unacceptable, inaccessible, implacable, and even unforgivable. Everything, but
unpredictable. Especially for the only government in the world that has a decade of
operational monitoring of fires by satellite in its history, with the best technology of
planning and forecast there is. There are ten years of inestimable services rendered by
the environmental research to which the authorities turn their back without doing their
The article traces the origin of this effort to 1987 when INPE’s (Instituto Nacional de
Pesquisas EspaciaisNational Institute of Space Research) researcher Alberto Setzer
developed a program to use data from NOAA, the American meteorological satellite, to
locate fire spots for now extinct IBDF (Instituto Brasileiro de Desenvolvimento
FlorestalBrazilian Institute of Forest Development). The next year, the editors of
Agência Estado, the news agency of O Estado, signed a contract by which the paper
committed itself to divulge that work, publishing it on the front page of its flagship
paper the way some Yankee dailies publish information about the weather on the newspaper’s
Starting in 1990 Embrapa produced maps showing major fire concentrations and the number
of fire spots. The maps made it possible to detect new fronts of deforestation inside the
virgin forest and showed that fires follow deforestation within three years. By 1992 the Estado/INPE
partnership had created the so-called economic-ecological zoning model, a blueprint for
developing economic activities in the Amazon, according to principles of sustainability
and with minimum impact on the environment.
Located in the northwest of Brazil, Roraima, which was upgraded from territory to state
According to the 1995 census, the state has 262,201 residents, 40,000 of whom are
Roraimenses contribute a diminutive 0.11% to the Gross Domestic Product. The main crops
Despite all the uproar in the last two decades and a half, the
Amazon is still an impressive and mostly intact forest with a size two thirds of the
For centuries the Amazon has been a source of inspiration and awe for all kinds of
dreamers and lunatics. Explorers and adventurers have entered it in search of riches or
some more intangible goods like the warrior women Amazons or the fountain of youth. Two
Americanscar pioneer Henry Ford with rubber trees in the ’30s and eccentric
billionaire Daniel Ludwig, who poured $3 billion in paper pulp, cattle raising and rice
planting projects during the ’70swere just some of the many people who tried to
conquer the region and were defeated by what has been often called as the Green Hell.
The so-called Amazônia Legal (Legal Amazon) which extends for nine Brazilian states
covers 5.2 million square km (2 million sq. miles) two thirds of which are in Brazilian
territory. If it were a country, it would be the world’s sixth largest one. The region
contains a wider variety of fauna and flora than any other place on earth. More than 1,500
bird species live there, as well as 3,000 fish species (that’s 15 times more than in all
European rivers). It is also believed that the number of insects that make the Amazon home
surpasses 30 million.
The number of plant species is unknown. Estimates vary from 5 million to 30 million.
Thirty thousand of them have been classified, representing 10% of all plants in the world.
One single acre in the Amazon contains close to 200 tree species. The forest has several
distinct layers. The biggest trees can reach 40 meters (130 feet). The upper canopy grows
generally 25 to 30 meters high (80 to 100 feet).
Since 1970 Brazil has created 124 environment parks and reservations which occupy more
than 45,000 square km (17,400 square miles), an area larger than Switzerland. In all,
Brazil has 1.8% of its total territory put aside as protected land. That’s too little,
though. By comparison, Colombia has 8% and Venezuela, 15%. To complicate matters, in less
than 30 years, 600,000 square km (231,700 square miles) of forestan area larger than
Despite occupying roughly half of the country’s territory, the Amazon is residence for
only 12% of Brazil’s 160-million strong population and contributes a miser 5% to the GDP
(Gross Domestic Product). Illiteracy reaches 25%, while the country’s average is 19%.
Annual per-capita income is 2,059, less than half the national average. Life expectation
is also lower in the area: 63 years compared to 67 years for the population in general.
Living in reservations that take close to 1 million square km (386,000 square
miles)20% of the Amazonthere are 280,000 Indians belonging to 210 different
ethnic groups, and speaking 170 languages. If you also count natives living in cities
there are more than 300,000 of them.
In 1500, when Brazil was discovered by Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral,
there were an estimated 6 million Indians. In the ’50s this number had fallen to less than
100,000. It is believed that at least 50 tribes have never had any contact with anybody
else than their fellow Indians. In one of the few good news in the ecological battle, the
Indian population in Brazil is growing at a rate of 3.5% a year, almost triple the 1.3%
for the population in general.
The Amazon river, which cuts the Amazon from west to east, together with its 1,100
tributaries carry 20% of all potable water in the planet. Seventeen of its tributaries are
over 1,000 miles long. The river drains an area as big as the continental United States.
The Amazon stretches itself for 6,868 km (4,268 km miles). More than 2,000 species of fish
live in its waters.
The military regime dream of occupying the Amazonone of its favorite slogans was integrar
para não entregar (to integrate so not to give it way)created among other
public works the Rodovia Transamazônica, a 5,000 km-long (3,100 miles) road cutting
inside the jungle between João Pessoa, in the state of Paraíba, and the border of Brazil
with Peru. The jungle has retaken the precarious path and today only 1,000 km (621 miles)
are passable part of the time. But it is a road only for the adventurous.
The government is spending $1.4 billion in a controversial, corruption-marred
radar-based system to monitor air traffic in the Amazon, as well as fires and all kinds of
invasions, including those of Indian lands by garimpeiros (wildcat gold
prospectors)they are believed to throw 20 tons of mercury illegally used for gold
panning on the water streams each year and the sem-terra (those
without land). It is the Sivam (Sistema de Vigilância da AmazôniaAmazon Watch
System), which should start operating in 2002. The twenty-radar system will also use data
from eight weather and environmental satellites as well as five planes specially built,
which will be able to look through the thick jungle vegetation. Today, Ibama has 275
inspectors to oversee the whole of the Amazon, or 18,500 square km (7,142 square miles)
for each one of them, an area almost as big the state of New Jersey.
The Brazilian official position on the Amazon has changed dramatically (at least on
paper) since 1972, when the military regime informed the world during the Stockholm
Environment Conference that Brazil considered its own development much more important than
concerns with pollution and deforestation.
Today there are plans to explore the enormous potential of the area for ecological
tourism. Amazonas Governor Amazonino Mendes, who oscillates between defender of the
environment and very good friend of the lets-cut-down-the-forest lobby, has some Amazonian
plans such as building a monorail inside the jungle together with a floating hotel large
enough to receive up to 30,000 visitors.
"Until now the premise to economically explore the Amazon was to cut the
forest," says ecology professor and WWF (World Wild Fund for Nature) executive
director Garo Batmanian. "There are smart alternatives to that and they need to be
The world spent $260 billion in eco-tourism last year. Costa Rica, with a forest 100
times smaller than the Brazilian one got $600 million. Only $40 million was spent on
Brazilian’s most famous jungle. A ridiculously low 0,01% of the total eco-tourism bill.
And nobody else has an Amazon so rich and so vast.
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