The fires in Amazonia

Faces in the smoke

Impunity, greed, economic, social, and political terrorism perpetrated by criminal elites, foolishness, hypocrisy, and ignorance—these are the real fuels igniting the Amazon fires. The forest is being consumed in those fires, along with thousands of human beings whose lives are deemed to be worth less than the spark that sets off the fires.

Image: Matheus Facco | Rel UITA

In the Amazon basin, the fires never go out. Hundreds of them burn each day. When one is put out, another one springs up to take its place immediately. Sometimes they come in twos.
The National Space Research Institute of Brazil (INPE) identified 6,803 fires in the Amazon region in July 2020, up from the 5,318 recorded in the same period last year.

On July 30 alone, satellites detected 1,007 fires in the Amazon, INPE said. This was the worst day for a month of July since 2005,” Greenpeace noted.

The Colombian publication Semana sostenible reports that this past July “INPE satellites spotted 1,669 fire spots in the Pantanal region, a number that more than triples the 494 detected in the same period of 2019. Since the monitoring started over 20 years ago, the worst month of July had been in 2005, with 1,259 fire spots.”

“Between January and July 31 of this year,” the publication adds, “a total of 4,203 fire spots were registered in this vast plain, which is flooded during the wet season and is home to numerous animal species. That figure represents an increase of 201 percent over the same period last year.”

Behind the flames, hell

Between September and October 2005, in the framework of the international campaign “No More Rural Violence!”, an IUF Latin America team formed by Álvaro Santos, Emiliano Camacho, and myself, supported by CONTAG (the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers of Brazil) and accompanied by their distinguished photographer César Ramos, traveled to the state of Pará, in northern Brazil, with the aim of filming an investigative documentary denouncing the roots of rural violence in that Amazon region, but also to put names and faces to the victims of that murderous violence, to make them more real.1

We were there for almost 30 days, traveling across that Amazon state, mostly by land. We passed through numerous cities, towns, villages, from Marabá, on the banks of the mythical Tocantins River, to Rondón do Pará, Paraupebas, Pacajá, Anapú, Santarem, along the Tapajós River, and finally to the outskirts of Belém do Pará, the state capital.

In each of these places we found traces everywhere of class violence, wounds that are still open because of the absolute impunity enjoyed by the murderers—the actual perpetrators sometimes get away scot free, but the ones who order the violence always do.

To understand how the current fires works, it is essential to know what the context is, one in which a chain of interests and powers that begins with the great lumber operators, the large landowners of each region, who are often “owners by force” of hundreds of thousands of hectares, and are allied with legislators or hold seats in parliament themselves, use farcical judges and police officers who act under their orders to keep “things, animals, and people” in their power.

Nothing and nobody escapes their control. They are a true parallel state, o perhaps, in those regions, they are the true state itself; and not only are they the “law and order,” they are often also God, represented by the various Evangelist and Pentecostal religious groups that complete the circle of local power.

An aching soul

It’s hard. When I come to this point it’s hard for me to go on without being shaken to the core by the memory of the absences we found along the way in that immersive trip into a reality that was more evocative of the nineteenth century than of the twenty-first.

Like Dedé, the charismatic rural unionist murdered in Marabá along with his wife and youngest son. His other children survived miraculously, and having witnessed the massacre, they identified the perpetrators, but to no avail, as they were soon set free by a court.

Dezinho was murdered just outside his home in Rondón do Pará, in front of his wife Joelma. He was the president of the local rural union, and had received many death threats.

When we met Joelma, she was the new president of the union, and, as a result of repeated threats on her life, she and her children were living with police protection around the clock. It is impossible to forget the look in the eyes of the sons and daughters of Dezinho and Joelma, huddled together on the couch surrounding their mother, while we taped her interview.

As we went in deeper and deeper, down the Amazon routes, we saw with our own eyes the practical, concrete, palpable reasons for this neocolonial violence.

The rainforest had disappeared, pushed back from the roads farther and farther out; and as far as the eye could see there were only cattle and soybean crops. And fires.

In Paraupebas, we heard the story of Soares, a rural labor leader killed openly in the street, told by his brother; and the story of Antonio do Alho, another rural leader killed only months earlier after he was hired by the Department of Agriculture of the Municipality, told by his young widow.

The image of this widow is also seared into my memory, as she showed me in tears how and where her husband had been gunned down, shot in the chest when he opened the door of their home. Their four small children were like four little chicks following her around, clinging to her skirt, not letting her out of their sight for even a second.

Further in, still along the Trans-Amazonian Highway, in Pacajá, we met Dorival, who had left his farm after receiving death threats and was living in the suburbs of the city practically in hiding, protected day and night by his fellow unionists.

As it turned out, our visit gave him a chance to safely see his wife and children, whom he had not seen in months.

Nothing and nobody is safe

Dorothy Stang was a U.S.-born member of the religious congregation Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who was on a mission in Anapú, in the heart of the Amazon region.

Dorothy, who had been living there for 20 years, together with Sister Janine, also from the United States, had embraced the cause of the landless rural laborers of the area. She had stood up for them in many local conflicts and that had earned her death threats. Two hit men ambushed her and gunned her down in a cane field, as she walked down a country road that she used to take as a shortcut home.

This time the scandal made headlines on the global mainstream media, but little progress was made with the murder investigation, which only resulted in the jailing of the two sorry individuals who shot Dorothy in exchange for a few coins.

The sadness I witnessed in Janine and the novices who lived with them stayed with me forever, as did the small shrine by the window set up in memory of Dorothy, the late afternoon light streaming into the mission almost in a straight line, and Dorothy’s grave on a small island off the coast of Anapú, which had become a place of pilgrimage for the people who had welcomed her and now remembered her lovingly.

The hope of the traditional communities

Ivete, president of the local rural union, was waiting for us in Santarém. A member of a traditional community that has lived in the forest for centuries, she had received death threats from a “death consortium” formed by cattle ranchers, loggers, and soybean growers. The area was being constantly razed by fire to expand the agricultural frontier, with millions of hectares snatched from the rainforest and devoted to extractive activities.

The loggers are the precursors of the disaster. They are the first to penetrate the rainforest and sweep away all the fine hardwood2 they find in their path. The rest simply burn the forest, preparing the ground for their “partners,” pirate fazendeiros (large landowners) and other rogues.

In Brazil, the term quilombo3

refers to a black community that lives in the forest. These communities were originally formed by groups of African and Afro-Brazilian slaves who fled from the plantations and sugar mills where they were enslaved.

Today they are scattered villages of people who live off what the forest provides, its fish and wild plants and fruits, and the small subsistence crops they grow. They demand that they be recognized as the owners of their ancestral lands, and some of them have succeeded in this demand but are forced to be constantly confronting the grileiros, the arsonist land-grabbers who seek to take over their land. They are regularly harassed, threatened, and attacked by armed men.

Ivete took us on a tour of some of these traditional enclaves, where we found a calm atmosphere, people living in harmony with nature, as one with the forest, people who for that reason are the stewards who can guarantee its conservation.

On the way there we came across an abandoned public school, completely surrounded by soybean crops. Ivete told us that pressure from soybean growers was so great that hey had stopped sending their children to that school.

Rejane was a woman from Bahia who emigrated to Pará, where she settled down and formed a family. An activist with the rural women’s movement, she was murdered on her doorstep in front of her small children and nieces and nephews.

The hit man was apprehended a short distance away from the scene of the crime, but just minutes later some “diligent” policemen applied the well-known “flight law” and gunned him down . The result: a “burnt file.”

Rejane’s family gave us a moving testimony of the love that this joyful and dynamic woman put into everything she did. Nobody had forgotten her.

Will tears put out the fire?

These stories and their faces are what I see in the smoke rising from the thousands of fires burning in Amazonia. Behind the flames there is not only a terrible environmental disaster; there also lie these and other thousands of human lives taken by the violence of the greed, power, and profit-at-all-costs that dominate the region, in a context of political complicity that ensures absolute impunity for the rural mafias.

The merchants in the temple

Words—these very words—are not enough to convey the weight of the violence that is committed day after day with impunity, the way in which absolute power shapes the everyday lives of thousands, perhaps millions, of people.

I respect the outrage with which honest people across the world react to this inferno, but I condemn the hypocrisy of many who point their finger to blame others while at the same time buying hardwood, soybean, and meat produced thanks to the very flames they condemn. Ultimately, the triggers that kill in Amazonia are also pulled from afar.

“Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations. Centuries passed, and Latin America perfected its role.

We are no longer in the era of marvels when fact surpassed fable and imagination was shamed by the trophies of the conquest—the lodes of gold, the mountains of silver. But our region is still working as a menial.

It continues to exist at the service of others’ needs, as a source and reserve of oil and iron, of copper and meat, of fruit and coffee, the raw materials and the foods destined for rich countries, which profit more from consuming them than Latin America does from producing them,” as Eduardo Galeano explained back in 1971 in his Open Veins of Latin America.

What have we really managed to change since then, since the beginning?

Lucifer’s thrones

Before the flames start in Brazil, Amazonia is already burning in the stock markets of New York, London, Tokyo, and Paris, in the port of Shanghai and the restaurants of Moscow. That is where the victims of Brazil’s rural violence—be them flora, fauna, or humans—actually end up.

The president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, mounts a puppet show, sending some army units to Amazonia, which, according to local activists, only deal with the fires by repressing the “independents” while turning a blind eye with large landowners who continue with their burning, now unfettered by “unfair competition.”

The treasure of humanity that is not to be bought and sold, that is not a commodity, is disappearing before our very eyes: more than 40,000 plant species, over 6,000 animal species, nearly 400 indigenous groups, the planet’s greatest climate regulator, the largest river basin in the world.

Smoke. Nothing is destroyed, everything is transformed… into money and power.