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Destruction: an aerial view of a forest fire near the city of Candeias do Jamari in the state of Rondônia. Photo/Victor Moriyama/Greenpeace

The true cost of the Amazon fire

The largest tropical forest in the world is being destroyed, by deliberately lit fires and logging, at an unprecedented rate. Now, with 20% of the forest already gone, “the lungs of the Earth” are approaching the point of no return. New Zealander Phil Vine files this eyewitness account.

Blue-winged butterflies drift by. Insects screech high in the canopy like a chorus of transistor radios. The close, hot embrace of the forest is suffocatingly beautiful. At the base of a towering castanha tree, S, a woman in her forties, is sobbing.

S had been responding to a simple question about her feelings towards the forest. This great green thing we’re standing in called the Amazon. She cries as she imagines what might happen here: red-dust roads, bulldozers and chains, humped cattle.

“I don’t like it,” says S. “I don’t even like to talk about it, because when we talk about death, it’s not good. Each tree they cut, everything they do, hurts us.”

Two bored teenage boys are out in front, slashing with machetes. We move haltingly along a path that is continuously reclaimed by the Amazon biome. Selva dura, as S calls it: hard jungle. It’s hard to be in, but also hard to be away from.

S has just left her home for the city to work for a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that aims to protect her people. We’re not using her full name or that of others to avoid any possibility of retribution. Things are heating up here.

Under threat: a river flows through the Amazon. Photo/Getty Images

The Amazon, once thought saved, is under threat again. For 15 years, rates of deforestation fell, then stabilised in tandem with the blood pressure of environmentalists. Under Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, it is spiking again, setting off alarm bells throughout the ecological community.

In the past two weeks, a burning Amazon has been blazing across social media. In the first eight months of the year, 75,000 forest fires were recorded in Brazil, an 84% increase on last year. The Government has sent 44,000 troops to battle the flames.

At the recent G7 summit in Biarritz, France, world leaders pledged US$20 million ($31 million) to fight the fires, an amount dismissed as “chump change” by environmental campaigners.

Bolsonaro has wasted no time in courting controversy, blaming the fires on environmental NGOs such as the one S works for. He has no evidence, he told the media, just a feeling. Environmentalists say the President is trying to conceal policies that have led to the expansion of cattle ranching, seen by many as the root cause of the deforestation and fires.

For those of us in far-flung parts of the world, such as New Zealand, the Amazon tends to be an abstract but crucial element in the climate-change equation. S understands its global significance, the cooling effect it has on the entire planet. But she has an even more immediate concern. This forest is her home. One-fifth of the Amazon is already gone. The latest data has it disappearing at the rate of three rugby fields every minute.

Bulls at a cattle feedlot in the Amazon. Photo/Getty Images

Undiscovered treasure

We’re heading to a 500-year-old grove of brazil nut trees with trunks that soar 30-50m towards the tropical sun.

Castanhas, or brazil nuts, can’t be farmed, as their pollination needs are too complex. The fat teardrops of protein that appear in packets and bulk bins around the world come straight out of the forest.

And if that comes as a surprise, as it did to me, then a bigger part of that surprise is contained in a recent paper from Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research. It debunks the popular colonialist myth of an “empty” Amazon populated with a scattering of indigenous people subsisting in a virgin forest.

Data gleaned from 1000 surveys casts the Amazon in a totally different light. Researchers discovered 85 domesticated plant species such as açaí and cacao widely distributed across 3000 archaeological sites.

It demonstrates that the trees that provide food and shelter didn’t just grow haphazardly, they’d been cultivated, transplanted and nurtured by the inhabitants over millenniums. It’s less an impenetrable forest than a jungle garden or a giant tree farm.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo/Getty Images

That vision doesn’t quite mesh with the rhetoric from the nation’s capital, Brasilia. The far-right Government has been offering up the Amazon as an undiscovered treasure, an unoccupied resource ripe for economic development. It is repeating the sort of expansionist anthems first sung when they put the Trans-Amazonian Highway through in the 1970s, kicking off the first round of deforestation. “Let’s use the riches that God gave us for the well-being of our population,” Bolsonaro said on a recent visit to the region.

To get to S’s house, we’ve come three hours up a river from the nearest town, Boca do Acre – think Ashburton, with much less money and far more unregistered guns. We left at sunrise, perched on loosely attached moulded plastic seats in a motorised skiff. A puff of air and a fleeting pink fin announce the presence of boto, the endangered freshwater dolphins that are said to change into desirable forms and slip into the hammocks of unsuspecting humans at night.

R is S’s neighbour, 20 minutes away by boat. At harvest time, he and his family of five leave their riverside huts and tramp into the selva with wicker baskets on their backs. They collect the castanhas by hand, a job with perils beyond the crocodiles, snakes and spiders. There are reports of strangers coming up the river, burning and pulling down the castanha trees, and a warning that rural encroachment is reaching parts of the forest that are supposed to be off limits.

In more benevolent times, large tracts of the Amazon were set aside, specifically protected by law for indigenous populations and traditional communities such as R’s. The areas, known as reserva extrativista, support communities who live off the forest without radically changing it, hunting, fishing and harvesting wild plants.

In recent months, R says, various outsiders with a different vision for the Amazon have started breathing down their necks – a breath with the distinct whiff of beef.

An area of deforestation. Photo/Getty Images

The arc of deforestation

Brazil’s cattle herd numbers 221 million and growing. Reports say 80% of the areas of the Amazon already deforested have been converted into ranches. There’s a strong correlation between the levels of deforestation and the growth of cattle farms, although the relationship is complicated.

You won’t see cattle ranchers with lassos riding into the rainforest on four-wheelers dragging their steers behind them. The  landowners and farmers tend to keep their hands clean. Their dirty work is done by nefarious groups, called land grabbers or grileiros, who are often accompanied by pistoleiros (gunmen).

When R’s sons prepare to check the furthest castanha grove, three hours’ walk away, they shoulder guns, and not just for hunting. We get up at dawn, all set to join them, but at the last minute they change their minds. It’s too dangerous for the gringos. There are reports of pistoleiros in the vicinity. We’re not inclined to argue.

Reports have been coming through of a cacique, or indigenous leader, stabbed on a reserva in the nearby state of Amapá. Heavily armed gold miners are reported to have invaded the village carrying machine guns. Bolsonaro’s initial response: there was no proof that the cacique had died.

At the offices of the federal prosecutors in Manaus, capital of Amazonia, we’d already been warned about these sorts of dangers. It’s almost easier to get through LA airport security than to get into the building – private armed guards in bulletproof vests watch as we put ourselves and our bags through metal scanners and our passports are copied and mugshots taken.

Rafael de Silva Roxa is 33, but doesn’t look a day over 24. One of the youngest prosecutors in Amazonia, he has among his briefs the policing of land-grabbing criminals making inroads into traditional and indigenous reserves. It’s a job made harder by the drugs, money laundering and political corruption, which, he says, are woven through this complex paradigm.

The land grabbers are active in an area of forest they call the “arc of deforestation” that stretches east to west across the southern Amazon. It’s something akin to a gold-rush-style land grab in which the grileiros use cattle as boundary pegs to stake out a claim on the forest.

The business model runs a little like this: move into a remote area and intimidate anyone who lives there, falsify documents, set fire to the forest to clear the land, remove the debris with chains and bulldozers, then sow grass seed and run a few cattle to validate the land claim. The pay-off comes a few years down the track when they sell their “farm” to cattle ranchers. It’s property speculation, Amazon style. 

Squirrel monkeys are vulnerable due to loss of habitat from wildfires. Photo/Getty Images

Ideological boundaries

It all becomes clearer as we take a flight southwest from Manaus to Rio Branco. At first, there’s nothing but forest for two hours. Below us, the Amazon appears indefatigable, a huge emerald fabric. Carved into the unflagging greenery, switchback rivers wend seawards, their sandy banks a surprising shade of gold. From up here, it’s easy to buy into that pioneers’ view of a remote, scary jungle.

Closer to our destination, the cattle town of Rio Branco, we start to see signs of the more audacious land grabbing: rectangular patches of light-green pasture surrounded by forest, waiting to be joined up to others in a game of bovine Tetris. Gradually, these give way to consolidated cattle ranches and we see the line of the frontier. The ideological boundary between light and dark green, farm and forest, as clear and visceral as the Berlin Wall once was.

We dip down to see wisps of smoke marking the places where the grileiros are burning off the remnants of trees, getting ready for grass seed and cattle. An existential nausea is exaggerated by the low-altitude manoeuvres of the plane.

This view from the air is shocking, but not unexpected. In São Paulo, we’d already stopped in at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). We’d seen the arc of deforestation in primary colours on its computer screens.

Satellite images of the Amazon fires. Photo/Supplied

INPE uses four different satellites and measures any change in land use down to 6.25ha. Apparently, the grileiros have caught on and are downsizing their grabs to try to escape detection. After the INPE’s release of deforestation data in July, which was higher than in a long time, Bolsonaro launched a fierce verbal attack against the institute, claiming its information was fake and it was trying to sabotage his country’s economic future. Puzzled INPE staff say they’re not remotely interested in the politics. It’s not their job. The satellite imagery tells the story: the land is deforested or it’s not; it’s forest or ex-forest – there’s not much room for subjective interpretation.

A big meeting is planned for the following Wednesday. Are they worried? No. Just concerned for this important project that they have proudly laid out for the entire world to see. Anyone from anywhere can go onto its website and watch the forest disappear. For now. A week after our visit, the director of the institute is fired. Bolsonaro is talking about handing the work to a private company, which may not be required to make the information public.

As well as running interference on his Government’s space programme, the President has been flashing the nationalist card, painting those concerned about the forest as mischievous foreign busybodies or plotting economic rivals. “We understand the importance of the Amazon for the world,” he told foreign journalists, “but the Amazon is ours.”

What right do developed countries, which have already cut down their original forests, have to tell Brazilians what to do? This is Bolsonaro’s argument, adding, “Indigenous people want to work, they want to produce and they can’t. They live isolated in their areas like cavemen.”

The toucan is also vulnerable due to loss of habitat from wildfires. Photo/Getty Images

End of the road

The BR317 federal highway from Rio Branco brought the outside world to the tribe of cacique G, back in the 1970s – it cut the indigenous community off from its past but failed to connect them with a future worth having. With the highway came the land grabbers, and plenty of violence. Their reservation was created after the cattle ranchers had their way with the land. There’s not much forest left.

It’s a cautionary tale about what might happen to S and R if the powerful ranching and farming “ruralistas” get their hands on the riches of their reserva.

G and his wife, M, take us to the place where they used to go hunting – a mud lake in the forest where deer and pigs would gather, only 20 minutes from the village. They used to get enough to eat for a week using just bows and arrows.

Now, when we walk through paddocks to the spot, there’s nothing but cracked earth surrounded by grass, cowpats and the occasional small tree that used to be part of the forest. Their hunting anecdote seems from another time, but this was G in his twenties.

His people used to live in a rainforest, but they now rely on a tanker to bring them water from town. G says the surrounding cattle ranches have contaminated the natural supply with agrochemicals. A nearby village lost several members of the same family from drinking poisoned water.

The tanker moves through clouds of red dust along BR317 to the next indigenous community; a motorcyclist rides in front to announce its arrival and collect the money.

As are the jaguar. Photo/Getty Images

Tipping point

Paulo Artaxo, one of Brazil’s leading climate-change scientists, says the agribusiness tail is wagging the dog. Awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007, as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Artaxo is well known enough to offer sturdy criticism of Bolsonaro’s Government. He isn’t worried about the sort of backlash that the INPE has been experiencing. As an academic, he says, it’s his job to criticise. And, like everything to do with climate, time is running out – deforestation is frighteningly efficient.

To lose the entire Amazon, we have only to destroy 40% of it, says Artaxo. With 20% of the original forest already gone, if we lose another 20%, it is thought that various feedback mechanisms will swing into action, transforming the remainder into savanna – mixed woodland and grassland. Then the ruralistas would have all the land they want.

Artaxo’s best hope for the Amazon is that it is left in the hands of indigenous and traditional communities who live there. They know how to look after it.

“The forest needs us,” says S. “When those other people come up the river and look to the forest, this would be an amazing pasture, they say. For us, we have a connection with the forest, we can feel it asking for help. We feel fragile because we don’t know how far we are able to protect it.”

Phil Vine is directing a documentary on the human effects of the global food system for Greenpeace International. It’s due out in October.

This article was first published in the September 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.