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Politicians: Fire-setting Amazon farmers not villains, just poor

  • Published at 09:50 am September 11th, 2019
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A fire burns a tract of Amazon jungle as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil August 31, 2019 Reuters

Humaita is among the top 20 municipalities in the country with the most hectares deforested from January to August

Farmers living along the Trans-Amazonian Highway, near Humaita, a rural town deep in the Amazon, would rather not use fire to clear forest land so they can grow crops and raise cattle, their local representatives say.

But without the heavy equipment they would need to remove vegetation, the mainly poor farmers have little choice other than burning it, in order to feed their families - one reason this year’s fires have been so numerous, local officials say.

“The number of fires has increased,” Humaita councilman Antonio Carlos Almeida told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. But people living near the town “need to farm to survive”, so have few options, he said.

It is a commonly held view in this town of 55,000 in Brazil’s northwestern Amazonas state - one of the area's most affected by rainforest fires and smoke this year.

Last month, Brazil’s space research agency, INPE, revealed the number of fires in the Amazon this year was the highest since 2010. And deforestation rose for the fourth straight month in August from a year earlier, it said on Friday.

Humaita is among the top 20 municipalities in the country with the most hectares deforested from January to August, according to INPE data.

The Amazon - the world’s largest tropical rainforest - absorbs planet-warming carbon dioxide, supports rainfall in South America and is considered crucial to curbing climate change globally.

An international backlash against the surge of fires this year eventually led Brazil’s conservative president, Jair Bolsonaro, to order the military to work on dousing the flames.

But fire has long been a key tool for agricultural expansion in the Amazon, with farmers burning forest or logged land to clear it for crop production or cattle grazing.

Seven councilmen from Humaita who spoke to a Thomson Reuters Foundation reporter said they saw continuing poverty in the region as the main driver of fires consuming the Amazon.

This year’s particularly large blazes illustrate the ongoing lack of government support for development in towns like Humaita, they said.

Interference

Bolsonaro has made no secret of his disdain for Brazil’s environmental agency, known as Ibama, which he has publicly rebuked as an impediment to the nation’s development.

Since he took office in January, Ibama’s budget has shrunk by a quarter, according to internal government data collected by the opposition PSOL party and shared with Reuters.

New leadership at Ibama also has made it tougher for the agency to crack down on illegal logging, farming and mining that have despoiled nearly 12,000 square kilometers (4,633 square miles) in the Amazon this year, former and current employees told Reuters.

Like Bolsonaro, some of Humaita’s politicians see international complaints about deforestation in Brazil as interference in the country’s own affairs.

Councilman Ivo Dias Azevedo said he believed international bodies wanted to take over the rainforest for themselves.

Other councilmen do not share that view, but said local people had no way to sustain themselves without resorting to practices harmful to the environment.

They said support for sustainable development - from Brazil’s government or international organizations - rarely reached communities such as Humaita.

“I understand that the fires are out of hand, but we need a policy that benefits us. Our people live in poverty,” said councilman Russell Lello de Miranda.

He believes the international community has unfairly branded farmers as “villains”, ignoring that most just want to survive.

Fires started by poor farmers are common, but the increase this year is due to criminal gangs grabbing large swathes of forest and cutting it down to expand farmland, said federal prosecutor Daniel Lobo, based in the Amazon city of Porto Velho.

“Large deforestations are normally the result of an action by organized groups. It demands resources, it costs money,” said Lobo, part of an environmental task-force in the Amazon region.

In the Amazon, deforestation is legal only when authorized by Ibama, but the practice is widespread nonetheless.

Compounding the problem, Lobo said, was that farmers historically have forged documents to give an appearance of legality to what amounts to grabbing of government-owned land.