For more information, contact:
Dr. Jose Fragoso Assistant Researcher, The Wildlife Conservation Society, and Courtesy Professor Dept. of Zoology University of Florida Gainesville, Florida USA, 32611. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Kirsten Silvius (Ph.D.Canditate) Dept. of Zoology University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida USA 32611. Email: email@example.com
An Urgent Message from the Field (March 18, 1998):
Fires in the Amazon forest are not new--in the last five years much attention has been given to the multiple fires set by slash and burn agriculturists in the main Amazon, and the resulting smoke pollution. But until now, the forests of Roraima seemed safe: the recently created state has a low population density and colonization is concentrated in few, localized areas. The extreme el Nino-induced drought, however, has finally allowed the fires traditionally set in the savanna and forest-savanna boundary to spread into the forest. The forests of Roraima, in addition to the ususal biodiveristy we assoicate with these areas, are also the home of the Yanomami, the largest unacculturated indigenous group in South America. During the last decade the Yanomami have been in the news due the massive 1987-90 gold rush into their area, the 1991 demarcation of their reserve by then President Collor, the massacre of women and children by gold miners at Haximu in 1993, and the recent expulsion, or attempted expulsion, of a new rush of gold miners in the last months of 1997.
When we visted Roraima last February, to attend the annual Yanomami Assembly, the impacts of the drought were starting to be felt: one community deep in the forest, near the mountains that form the border with Venezuela, abandoned their home site because the river and streams were all dry. A few days later CCPY, the largest NGO working with the Yanomami, sent in workers to dig wells and attempt to keep their health post running. They had to carry in their own water, flown several hours by the small planes that are the only way of reaching the area. Now they cannot fly in even to resupply their workers: when fires started burning into the forest about two weeks ago, the smoke layer became so extensive that the small, visual flight planes cannot fly into the area. In fact, local authorities have just forbidden all flights over the area. The smoke reaches up to 6,000 feet into the atmosphere, so only planes with radar can overfly, and none can land on the small airstrips cut into the forest. Even though the fires have not reached the interior forest communities, the smoke is preventing all access to the area: None of the health posts can be resupplied, no emergency medical situations can be addressed (usually, critically ill or injured Yanomami are flown out). In terms of immediate effects, it is the communities near the forest border that are most impacted by the fires (animals dying and leaving the area, extreme drought, etc.), but the interior communities are being affected by the lack of access. Since several communities are experiencing severe malarial outbreaks, due to the recent gold miner activities, it is critical that medicine reach the area and that ill people be flown out.
The health organizations working in the area are concerned about the lack of news coverage of the situation. During the last crisis in the Yanomami area, it was largely international focus on the crisis that forced the federal government to expel the gold miners, or pursue the perpetrators of the massacre. Tomorrow, two anthropologists who have worked for decades with the Yanomami, Drs. Bruce Albert and Alcida Ramos, are flying to Brasilia to attempt to meet with the President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Two Yanomami leaders, known in Portuguese as Joao Davi and Peri, will be accompanying them. We spoke with Joao Davi last night over the phone from World Doctors head quarters in Boa Vista. He had flown out of his village of Paapiu a few days ago, where World Doctors has a health post. The plane was to have landed at another village but the smoke was just too thick and they had to abandon the attempt. He also said that as the plane approached the edge of the forest, the forest itself was burning deep inside, far from the edge. He asked me what we could do to save the forest. I had no answer. The Yanomami are terrified that the smoke means that they and their forest are all coming to an end. Ever since contact, they have been afraid that white people will destroy the forest, which to them is the entire world. In the case of mining, Davi Yanomami explains that it you pull out the rocks from the ground, the sky will fall on the forest and kill Yanomami and whites alike. With the fires, it must seem to them that this prediction is comming true.
Carlos Zaquini, an indigenist who has worked with the Yanomami for more than thirty years, infomed us that the forest around the crossing into the Yanomami region of Caatrimani, closest to a contested agricultural border on the reserve, have all burned down. The monkeys are so desperate for water after the fires that they have concentrated around the few remining pools of water, trying to survive on the ground. There they are slaughtered by "white" hunters who are taking advantage of the fires to hunt deep in the Yanomami area.
Medecins du Monde (World Doctors) and other NGO's and governmental
agencies operating out of Boa Vista, have been meeting aroung the clock
to try to find solutions--how to prevent the further spread of fires, how
to stop new fires from being set, how to get supplies and water out to
the communities that need it. The president of IBAMA (the branch of the
Ministry of Environement in charge of protected areas and environmental
regulations) is visiting Roraima to evaluate the situation (theoretically
IBAMA is responsible for contolling burning in the area and penalizing
those who set illegal fires). One must remember that the situation is critical
throughout the state, especially in the savanna area: fires are burning
near the principal city of Boa Vista, outlying towns have no water, emergency
wells are being dug, ranchers have lost a huge percentage of their cattle,
etc., etc. Funds and attention will be spread thin, and we need to focus
some of it on the Yanomami and the forest. This is a world level ecological
disaster, and it will only become worse: the rainy season is still almost
two months away.
BYLINE: Phil Davison Latin America Correspondent The Independent (London)
March 16, 1998, Monday
OFFICIALS in the remote Brazilian Amazon jungle state of Roraira, ravaged by wildfires for the past two months, are angry over what they say is a slow response from the federal government in Brasilia.
They say the government has been holding back promised funds for firefighting helicopters and other measures to halt the blaze, which has already charred 22,000 square miles, a quarter of the state's forests. The fires, following the area's worst drought in 30 years, are threatening 15 villages inhabited by hundreds of Yanomami Indians, the world's last surviving Stone Age tribe. The blaze has already wiped out one-third of the state's crops and burnt alive 12,000 cows.
"We want the federal government to release the funds we need to control these fires," Roraira state spokeswoman Consuelo Oliveira told the Associated Press. "So far we haven't seen a penny."
Many Brazilians were already critical of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso over an environment bill passed by Congress last month. The bill imposed strict penalties for several ecological crimes, but after lobbying by wealthy logging companies, Mr Cardoso diluted the bill by vetoing nine articles. One would have handed down three-year prison terms on farmers or loggers who cut or burnt forest areas without permission.
The government is due to announce a new "Green Package" this week, offering farmers incentives to discourage them from the traditional "slash and burn" technique of burning down trees to create farmland.
After delaying statistics for many months, Mr Cardoso's government finally admitted in January that deforestation of Amazonia had reached record levels over the past two years, doubling between 1994 and 1995 alone. One-eighth of Brazil's rainforests has been destroyed, by farmers or loggers chopping down trees for lumber or burning them to create cattle pastures or farmland, over the past 20 years.
Roraira state governor Neudo Campos has visited the federal capital,
Brasilia, three times over the past two months in an effort to get federal
aid, particularly a promised $ 2.4m (pounds 1.5m) for 22 specially-converted
firefighting helicopters from the US and Russia.
Chicago Tribune March 18, 1998 Wednesday
APPROACHING FIRE HAS BRAZIL NATIVES NERVOUS BYLINE: Associated Press.
DATELINE: BOA VISTA, Brazil
A single river, dried to a stone's throw across by drought: Tuesday, that was all that stood between the rain forest sheltering a Stone Age people and the worst fire in the history of the northern Amazon.
Already, white smoke obscured the forest canopy and a village of the Yanomami tribe in the remote area. Barely 2 miles away, savanna brush crackled and burned under a fire that has raged out of control for three months.
If the flames jump the Mucajai River, firefighters warn, there is little to stop them from racing unchecked through the dry forest.
"There's no telling what it will do," said Kleber Cerquinho, head of the Civil Defense bureau in the Brazilian state of Roraima. "If it passes the river, it could burn a corridor straight through for hundreds of kilometers."
A drought has shrunk the Mucajai, normally 150 yards wide, to 60 yards. It's a fragile line of defense in the face of the current threat.
"Normally you see 30, 40 points of fire during the burning season," Cerquinho said. "Now there are thousands and they won't go out until it rains."
That probably won't happen for a month, forecasters say.
El Nino has turned away the normal rains--only 1/25th of an inch has fallen all year, drying savanna and prairie to tinder and turning the annual brush-clearing fires by farmers and ranchers into an inferno.
So far, the fire has burned 1.5 million acres, or about 3 percent of Roraima state, Gov. Neudo Campos said. About one-fifth of the burned area was forest. There was only one confirmed fatality, a man struck by a burning branch.
But the fire now is threatening the 25 million-acre reservation that is home to 9,000 Yanomamis. Another 11,000 live across the border in Venezuela.
A pre-literate tribe whose members still hunt and fish with bows and arrows, the Yanomami lived in virtual isolation for centuries. A gold rush in the 1980s brought a wave of illegal prospectors and with them guns, disease and Western ways that eroded traditional values.
Now, their home itself is in danger.
"It looks threatening," said Marcos Vincius Pereira da Silva, head of the Federal Indian Bureau's Operation Yanomami. "You can't see anything from the village, but it makes the Indians nervous."
Da Silva believes the fire won't pass the river, but that's not the only danger. The Yanomami also have a tradition of clearing jungle by slash-and-burn technique.
"It's even more of a threat, because you can't explain to them why they
shouldn't do it," he said.
Fragoso/Silvius update, March 18 1998: The fire
crossed the Mucajai River several days ago, and continues to burn into
The Toronto Star March 17, 1998, Tuesday
Raging fires threaten Stone Age tribe Remote regions of Amazon devoured by blaze that's burning out of control
DATELINE: BOA VISTA, Brazil
A three-month-old fire is raging out of control in Brazil's remote northern Amazon, devouring large sections of savanna and lapping at the forest home of the Yanomami Indians, the world's largest Stone Age tribe.
Gov. Neudo Campos of Roraima state said the blaze at one point reached 20 kilometres inside the Yanomami reservation, although he couldn't say how much forest had been burned.
Heavy smoke and low rivers shrunken by months of drought hindered access to the region, which is home to about 9,000 Yanomami. About 11,000 more live across the border in Venezuela.
"We have lost control of the situation," Kleber Cerquinho, head of the state Civil Defence bureau, admitted in a radio interview.
Less than 26 millimetres of rain has fallen this year in Roraima, a wedge of land between Venezuela and Guyana. The unusual dry spell is attributed to El Nino, a warming of the waters in the Pacific that changes weather patterns worldwide.
Roraima's vegetation dried to tinder, and the traditional brush-burning by farmers and ranchers has swept over savanna and pasture lands that cover much of the state. Only about one-fifth of the burned area is forest.
There is only one, unconfirmed report of a fatality: a man killed when he was hit by a burning branch.
Campos said yesterday some 600,000 hectares had been burned, or about three per cent of the state. That was way below earlier official estimates of 25 per cent.
The fire advances at a pace of 10 kilometres a day, and firefighters are almost powerless to stop it, Campos said.
The blaze comes on the heels of the world's worst year for fires.
More tropical forests burned in 1997 than at any time in recorded history, sowing death, respiratory illnesses and pollution and destroying wildlife habitats, the World Wide Fund for Nature said in a report issued in December.
"This was the year the world caught fire," said Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud, head of WWF's forest program and co-author of the report. "As we destroy forests we are destroying our insurance for the future."
The report said almost 5 million hectares of forest and other land burned in Indonesia and in Brazil, an area four times the size of Prince Edward Island.
Vast areas of Papua New Guinea, Colombia, Peru, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and other parts of Africa also burned, and large fires were reported in Australia, China, Russia and several Mediterranean countries.
Claude Martin, director-general of the group formerly called the World Wildlife Fund, called it "a planetary disaster."
The Amazon region of Brazil alone had more than 45,000 fires last year.
Flames from the fires currently burning out of control threaten virgin rain forest and the villages of Brazil's Yanomami.
For centuries, the Yanomami lived in virtual isolation, hunting and fishing with bow and arrows. They have no written language and count only up to two - anything more is "wahoro," or "many."
But in the 1980s, a gold rush brought prospectors flooding into the Yanomami's 10-million-hectare reservation.
Meanwhile, Campos said, firefighters and army soldiers have built 6,000 small reservoirs and are digging wells to get water to combat the blaze.
The state government sought help in nearby Venezuela and asked for federal money to rent 22 Russian and U.S. firefighting helicopters, Campos said.
But the helicopters weren't available, and Brazil's Environmental Protection Agency said they wouldn't be much good anyway.
About 12 per cent of Brazil's five-million-square-kilometre rain forest already has been razed by loggers, ranchers and farmers. The government says destruction reached record levels in 1995 before finally levelling off in the last two years.
Although El Nino is fading, its effects may be felt for years, experts say.
"Think of the forest as a sponge," says David Nepstad, a U.S. scientist with the Woods Hole Research Centre.
"In 1997 it was wrung dry, and this year we're not seeing the kind of
rainfall that will replenish it. So it looks like 1998 could be even worse."
The Seattle Times March
BRAZIL -- POLITICIANS, CORPORATIONS FIDDLE AS RAIN FOREST BURNS
BYLINE: TOD ROBBERSON; THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
DATELINE: MANAUS, BRAZIL
BODY: MANAUS, Brazil - Nature and man have combined forces during the past year to cut an unprecedented swath of destruction through Brazil's rain forests, and environmentalists say this devastation offers only a glimpse of what could lie ahead.
Wildfires, invasions by landless peasants, pasture-clearing by cattle ranchers and clear-cutting by loggers have wiped out millions of acres of tropical rain forest during 1997 and early 1998, according to independent surveys and satellite data.
Although the exact amount of territory affected is still a subject of heated debate between the Brazilian government and environmental groups, all agree the rate of destruction is increasing. And they concur that the Amazon jungle - the world's only remaining dense tropical rain forest - is particularly threatened.
"The time has come to stop haggling about the numbers and focus our attention on how we can find a solution to the problem," said Garo Batmanian, executive director of the World Wildlife Fund in Brazil.
"Just look at the diversity and amount of sources saying there's a problem," he added. "Look at the satellite data. The amount of evidence that we are not managing the Amazon properly is overwhelming."
In the Amazon alone, fires spread across 5 million acres in 1997, most of them set by humans but exacerbated by drought associated with El Nino, according to a study by the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Smoke from the fires was so thick in the northwestern Amazon city of Manaus that the international airport was forced to shut down repeatedly in late 1997, and hospitals reported sharp increases in patients with respiratory ailments.
Elsewhere, heat from wildfires became so intense that a lake bed reportedly caught fire. Winter rains have helped clear the smoke, but thousands of fires are believed to still be raging beneath the thick Amazon canopy.
The amount of land set ablaze in the rain forest this year is roughly equal in size to the entire state of New Jersey. The number of fires recorded - nearly 45,000 from July 1 to Nov. 22 - represents a 50 percent to 70 percent increase from the number recorded in 1996, according to statistics compiled by federal legislators and international environmental groups.
"We are talking about an index of destruction of around 50,000 or 60,000 square kilometers (20,000 to 24,000 square miles) a year. This is not my imagination. This is the reality," said Congressman Gilney Viana, head of a commission that recently concluded a yearlong study of Amazon deforestation.
The study identified large cattle ranches and illegal exploitation of the forest by foreign and domestic logging companies as the main culprits. As much as 70 percent of the timber cut down is discarded as waste and is set ablaze as the most expedient means of clearing property, Viana said.
"The smoke was a big issue here," said Philip Fearnside, a deforestation specialist at Brazil's National Institute for Amazon Research. "It was very impressive for people in Manaus, but it shouldn't have been so surprising. You can expect it to happen more often in the future."
Playing down the devastation The Brazilian government sought to play down the extent of the devastation during the United Nations conference on climate change last year in Kyoto, Japan. It contended that the fires did not contribute significant amounts of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" that are believed to cause global warming.
That assertion led to an outcry by environmental groups, which contend Brazil is the source of 6 percent to 10 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, putting it on a par with many developed nations.
The government also drew widespread condemnation for withholding a key report on Amazon deforestation until after the Kyoto conference was concluded. Up to now, the most current official data on deforestation is based on 4-year-old surveys, which even the government concedes are woefully outdated.
Deforestation specialist Fearnside and others discounted assertions by government environmental officials that the fires were largely a temporary phenomenon associated with El Ni?o, the Pacific warm-water current that has disrupted weather around the world and is believed to have contributed to forest fires across Asia.
"We do know that the forest is drier because of El Ni?o. But El Ni?o didn't start the fires. Man did," said Paolo Adario, communications director of Greenpeace.
Marketing Amazon timber Adario said the increased fires are the result of government policies that encourage clear-cutting by farmers and cattle ranchers, and an increasingly aggressive campaign to market Amazonian timber in wood-hungry Asia.
The international marketing campaign is of particular concern to environmentalists because it comes at a time when Asian logging companies are stepping up their efforts to exploit the Amazon, through legal as well as illegal means. At least 80 percent of all timber taken from the Amazon is logged illegally, a government report stated earlier this year, although it remains unclear how much of it is related to foreign timber companies.
"The Asians are just taking advantage of this free-for-all," Batmanian said.
"The Asian companies are bigger, much bigger than their Brazilian counterparts. They can go into an area and log it far faster, with better equipment. The only problem is, they have a history of devastation not only in their own countries but wherever they go," Adario said. "What we fear is that they will do to the Amazon what they've already done to their own forests . . . That's the whole reason they're coming here."
The government acknowledges it is trying to boost its share of the international timber market to take advantage of shortages in Asia caused by massive deforestation there in recent years.
Martins, the Brazil environment official, said the international timber market could represent $ 20 billion in annual trade for Brazil, and exploitation of this market constitutes part of the government's "positive agenda" to develop the Amazon's commercial potential.
"It is crucial for Brazil to push for more sustainable development of its forest industries. The Amazon measures 5 million square kilometers (2 million square miles). Our idea is to try to put into balance the social needs of community living there and the need to protect the Amazon's biodiversity," Martins said.
"With this approach, we are looking for disposable lands in the region," he said, noting the government's 5.4 million-acre experimental forest reserve that will be opened to commercial logging.
"It would be very important to create more untouchable areas, but we find it more important to stay flexible," he said.
Brazil seeks to limit settler damage to rainforest
19 March 1998 Web posted at: 21:42 ART, Buenos Aires time (00:42 GMT)
BRASILIA, March 19 (Reuters) - Brazil, struggling against raging forest
fires in the
Amazon, unveiled on Thursday measures officials said would reduce the impact of
land-hungry settlers on the rainforest. "Land policy and environmental policy must flow in the same direction," said Environment Minister Gustavo Krause. Fires started by poor subsistence farmers, many of them settlers, have raged out of control for two months in a vast savannah region of Roraima state, on Brazil's border with Venezuela. The fires are now advancing into the rainforest. Environmentalists say small-scale farmers, with their primitive slash-and-burn techniques, are a major driving force behind deforestation in the Amazon region. "We can't put the blame on one factor or another but within the general universe of causes, the small farmers definitely contribute," said Eduardo Martins, president of the government's Environment Institute (IBAMA).
Thursday's package of measures included settling landless families in areas of the
Amazon which have been deforested. An estimated 230,000 square miles (600,000 square km), an area bigger than France, has been already been chopped down and 77,200 square miles (200,000 square km) of that total is idle. Brazil's military dictatorship began settling the Amazon in the 1960s in a bid to populate the remote, Western Europe-sized rainforest. Many settlers continue to be sent to jungle areas which are quickly destroyed.
In a bid to slow land invasions by landless groups in the Amazon region, another
measure will rule out including in the government's land reform program forested areas which have been invaded by landless farmers.
The government will suspend distribution of land deeds for new settlements over 247 acres (100 hectares) in the Amazon and scrap land reform rules that encourage land owners to cut down trees. Martins said that the new measures would be easy to introduce, requiring only
administrative changes, and added that they would be backed up by funds and training.
Brazil has taken several steps in recent months to reduce deforestation in the Amazon region. In January, Congress approved a new law to make it easier for authorities to prosecute environmental offenders including logging companies. In January it announced that an area equivalent to twice the size of Belgium was deforested between 1995 and 1997, with most of the damage taking place in 1995
Thursday March 19 5:20 PM EST
Yanomami Shamans Try to Halt Amazon Fires
By Joelle Diderich
BOA VISTA, Brazil (Reuters) - As fires raged deeper into the Amazon
rainforests Thursday, Yanomami Indian shamans gathered to perform a sacred
ceremony to call down the rains, an Indian activist said. In the smoke-choked
Tototobi village deep in the jungle, five elderly mystics known as "xapuris"
entered a hallucinogenic trance by snorting powdered bark of the virola
tree and chanted spells to "cool the sun," Daisy Alves Francisco said.
"They only gather like this in cases of big outbreaks of disease or when
there are big problems with their environment," said Francisco, who works
with the non-governmental Commission for the Creation of the Yanomami Reservation
She said she had spoken with village members of the primitive Yanomamu people by radio.
Since January, Roraima state, on the border with Venezuela, has been ravaged by the worst fires in recent memory. There has been no rain for six months and forecasters say the dry spell, blamed on the El Nino weather phenomenon, will last until late April.
About 1.5 million acres of highland savannah have been burned and 12.3 million acres --an area larger than the Netherlands -- is at risk. The fires are now advancing into the rainforest, ripping through undergrowth which has lost its natural humidity in the
drought and some 3.5 million acres of jungle has either burned or is surrounded by fire, officials say. Argentina and Venezuela said Thursday they would send troops and aircraft to Roraima to help.
In Buenos Aires, Argentina's Natural Resources and Environment Secretary Maria Julia Alsogaray announced that 100 firefighters and four helicopters were leaving for Brazil.
Venezuela's embassy in Brasilia said Caracas would send an as yet unconfirmed number of men to join about 350 Brazilian firefighters struggling to contain seven fire fronts in Roraima. Local officials have yet to agree on whether to rent airborne fire-fighting equipment. Brazil, despite its huge forests, has no specialized water-carrying planes or helicopters. International environment group Friends of the Earth condemned what it said was a lack of action in Roraima and called for rich nations to help.
"It is incredible that the world is sitting back and watching these rainforests burn," the group's Amazon coordinator Roberto Smeraldi said in a statement. "How much worse will the situation be allowed to get before the international community acts?"
Observers who flew over the Portugal-sized Yanomami Indian reservation earlier this week said a column of fire had pushed 13 miles into the area.
The government's Indian Agency said fears over burning in the reservation were exaggerated and the only fires there had been set by the Yanomami themselves. "Fortunately, the situation is not that critical," said agency official Marcos Ferreira.
But Francisco of the CCPY said she had heard differently. "In Tototobi, there is panic," she said after contacting one of the few Portuguese-speaking men from Tototobi.
She said dozens of Yanomamis, scared by thick smoke, had trekked to a health post, hoping to catch a plane out. "They see smoke north, south, east and west and they want to get out. But I had to tell them that the airport here in BoaVista is closed because of the smoke here too," Francisco said. A Yanomami Indian leader, speaking with Reuters by radio from another village, also reported thick smoke but said he and fellow villagers had put out the only fire in nearby forest. "The fires are taking over our land, killing the animals we hunt and the birds in the trees," said Davi Kopenawa Yanomami. "We need help because the rains are still a long way off." Kopenawa, a long-time campaigner for his people and one of only a few Yanomamis with experience of the world beyond
the rainforest, said he feared the fires would open up the normally impenetrable reservation for cattle ranchers and farmers.
"They have no respect, they will take advantage of the fires to bring in cattle and take over our lands," he said.
Tuesday November 18, 1997 Edition
Is Burning Of Amazon All Smoke?
Howard LaFranchi, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
BRASILIA -- While the world watched a smoky haze from jungle fires engulfSoutheast Asia recently, another large tropical forest also saw an increase in fires - the Amazon.
Airports have been repeatedly closed, drivers complain about low visibility, and more people report breathing problems as a portion of the world's largest rain forest has been torched for commerce and subsistence farming.
An area larger than Connecticut
is being burned each year, and Brazil now ranks No. 1 in deforestation,
according to the Washington-based World Wildlife Fund. Brazil's National
Space Research Institute estimates fires have jumped more than a quarter
during May to October compared with last year's burning season.
But that information has touched off a raging debate about whether the surge in
burnings actually means accelerated destruction of the Amazon.
"We're finding that 94 percent
of these burnings are repeat clearings of already
deforested areas, while only 6 percent are in new areas," says Eduardo Martins,
president of IBAMA, Brazil's environmental protection agency.
"It's just not true that an increase
in the number of burnings means increased
deforestation," Mr. Martins adds.
But environmentalists and some
state environmental officials counter that where
there's smoke there's deforestation - more, at least, than government officials,
sensitive about the international impact of Amazon deforestation, are willing to
"It's true there's no one-to-one
link [of burned to deforested area]," says Garo
Batmanian, executive director of WWF in Brasília. "But historically speaking, we
know there has always been an increase in deforestation when the number of fires
Increase in deforestation?
Brazil's Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon (IPAM), associated
with the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, estimates that about 70
percent of the fires this year occurred on already deforested lands. But it also notes
that the last time the Amazon experienced a sudden upswing in burnings in 1988,
the deforestation rate also increased.
The WWF miffed Brazilian officials
recently when it issued the report finding that,
at 15,000 square kilometers a year (5,776 square miles, based on 1994 figures),
Brazil is No. 1 in the world in deforestation. IBAMA's Martins responds with a
different study - listing countries by deforested land compared to remaining forest -
that places Brazil at No. 68.
"I don't really care about rankings, because statistics can always be made to say what you want them to," says Mr. Batmanian. "What I do know is that 15,000 square kilometers is a large area no matter where it is."
The controversy about burning and deforestation is abetted by Brazil's tardiness in issuing annual deforestation figures. The latest figures, covering 1994, showed a 34 percent increase in deforestation after several years of a much-trumpeted decline.
Brazil's National Space Research
Institute in São José dos Campos, responsible for compiling
the figures, has said the 1995 and 1996 figures will be released the first
week of December. But some observers suspect that will only happen
if the news is good. With Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso planning a trip to rain forest-sensitive Europe in December, they believe any results showing a continuing increase in deforestation would be held until after the visit.
Martins says all indications suggest to him the new figures will show a "stabilization" of deforestation.
The deforestation debate raises questions about why the fires are increasing, and what, if anything, can be done about it. Some officials blame government policy, which they say is "contradictory" when it forests.
"You have environmental policy trying to do one thing with the forests, but an agricultural policy that has a very different effect," says Evandro Orfanó Figueiredo, compliance director of IMAC, the environmental agency of Acre State.
Last year, Mr. Cardoso decreed new regulations designed to increase from 50 to 80 percent the part of each land parcel that must be left forested.
Government dilemma But at the same
time, the government has been resettling small farmers to forested states
like Acre, Mr. Orfanó says, as one response to the explosive landless
people's movement. The Sem Terra, or landless movement, is, if anything,
a more sensitive issue within Brazil than deforestation, making it difficult
for officials to address the policy contradictions Orfanó cites.
"It is politically incorrect to attack Sem Terra
in any way, but it is a serious problem," Martins says.
The government is trying to reduce
resettlements to forested areas, he says, but that does not stop Sem Terra
followers from "invading" and squatting on both public and private forested
lands. The policy of reserving 80 percent of each land parcel means that
vast sections of forest are unprotected and susceptible to squatting, Martins
says. "And the
quickest source of income for land invaders arriving with nothing is the timber on the land they've invaded," he adds.
Drying out the rain forest Not only are the traditional "slash and burn" agricultural methods causing the Amazon fires, but forest researchers say an increase in selective logging is also making the rain forest more susceptible to fire. Virgin rain forest is almost impossible to set afire because of its high humidity and cooler "microclimate," botanists say. But once the forest is thinned out, it is opened to the sun, and humidity falls.
IBAMA's Martins blames the Amazon region's record-low humidity this year on El Niño, the periodic warming of ocean waters off South America's Pacific coast that is wreaking havoc on climate patterns. But WWF's Batmanian says "pinning this on El Niño is stretching the truth."
One trend augers poorly for the
future, especially if the Amazon remains dry: In some areas, according
to findings in an IPAM study, the area burned in "accidental" fires or
set fires that raced out of control for the first time is surpassing the
area intentionally charred.
Wednesday March 25: Here are some more of the news
stories that have come out is US journals. We have spoken with several
peoplin Boa Vista, and will be updating the web page tonight or tomorrow
with those interviews.
Kirsten Silvius and Joe Fragoso
Monday March 23 5:30 PM EST
Brazil Sends More Personnel to Fight Fires
By Joelle Diderich
BRASILIA, Brazil (Reuters) - Dry winds fanned fires deeper into the
rainforests of Brazil's northern Amazon Monday as
authorities deployed more equipment and manpower in a bid to tackle the blazes.
About 30 Brazilian army jungle communications specialists were sent
to remote Roraima state on the border with Venezuela
as two more Argentine water-carrying helicopters were preparing to join the firefighting effort, bringing the total number of
helicopters to four.
But Roraima governor Neudo Campos said the firefighting operation --
which also involves Venezuela -- was still too small
and warned that the situation might deteriorate.
"The situation is extremely serious and it has all the elements to turn
into a new Indonesia," Roraima state governor Neudo
Fires ravaged large areas of forest in Indonesia last year, casting
choking smog over much of southeast Asia. New
outbreaks have been reported this week.
The Brazilian forest fire -- the worst in recent memory -- began in
January when subsistence farmers ignored government
warnings not to use 'slash and burn' tactics to clear their land and watched helplessly as the flames spread quickly over the
Amid one of the region's worst droughts, blamed on the El Nino weather
phenomenon, the fires are now eating into
rainforests normally too humid to burn.
Campos said 39,000 people in Roraima had been affected either directly
or indirectly because of the fires which continued
to spread through the region.
"The focal points of fire are increasing and the number of men are out
there is insufficient," Campos said. "The federal
government's structure for fighting fires of this magnitude needs to be more flexible."
Brazil launched a long-awaited aerial attack on the fires on Sunday,
sending two Argentine helicopters armed with huge
water buckets to the region of Apiau where fires burning through forest and pastures were threatening homes.
Rain, considered the only effective solution to the crisis, was due
to fall in scattered areas in the south of Roraima on
Monday but would miss the areas affected by the fires, a forecaster at the National Institute of Meteorology (INMET) said.
More widespread showers would follow on Thursday, but would still not
be enough to put out the fires. "It will be very
little. It should start raining properly there by April," said INMET's Francisco de Assis Diniz.
A thick smoke haze hung over the state capital Boa Vista Monday, reducing
visibility to 1.8 miles and forcing aircraft to
land with instruments, a spokesman for the city's international airport said.
A hospital this weekend reported the first fatality from the fires:
a three-month-old girl who died after her respiratory illness
was aggravated by the smoke.
Some 400 men were combating the fires but the extent of the blazes meant
they could not prevent flames from eating ever
deeper into the Portugal-sized jungle reservation of the primitive Yanomami Indians.
Reporters and photographers flying over the area last week saw fires
advancing into the area and rivers dotted with rocks,
indicating water levels were sharply depleted by the drought.
Firefighting experts said the blazes were particularly hard to fight
as they were scattered all over Roraima, a state roughly
the size of Britain, often creeping through undergrowth in thick jungle difficult to reach by land.
Environmental group Friends of the Earth (FoE) slammed government firefighting
efforts on Monday, saying they were
"Without a doubt (government efforts) are insufficient in the sense
that they haven't even properly started," said Roberto
Smeraldi, FoE's Amazon program coordinator in Brazil. "There has been no operational response from the authorities."
Published Tuesday, March 24, 1998, in the Miami Herald
New fires add to trouble in drought-parched Amazon
BOA VISTA, Brazil -- (AFP) -- Despite help from firefighters sent from
Argentina and Venezuela, new
blazes have been found in Brazil's northern grasslands and old ones will take three weeks to put out.
The biggest blaze, at Apiau, was still out of control Mondaydespite the
efforts of 150 Argentine and 300
Brazilian firefighters, said Gen. Luiz Edmundo Carvalho, commander of the First Infantry Jungle
``Despite reinforcements, it will take at least 20 days to put out the
dozens of fires in the region,'' he
Argentine firefighters, who are better equipped than the Brazilians, are
using two helicopters to dump
hundreds of gallons of water to lower the ground temperature.
The fire has been moving dangerously close to a reserve set aside for iron-age
already hard hit by illness and food shortages caused by a seven-month drought, the Roraima Roman
Catholic church said.
In the Pacaraima highlands on the border with Venezuela, nearly 100 Venezuelans
struggled to contain
small blazes in hopes of preventing them from crossing into Venezuela's southern savanna.
But water shortages have hit the Pacaraima because of the extended drought, the worst since 1926.
In southern Roraima, which had largely been spared, firefighters found
seven small blazes, most in the
remote Niquia National Park. The situation is better there, however, if for no other reason than there is a
greater likelihood of rain, according to meteorological services.
Reinaldo Barbosa of the Amazonia Research Institute has estimated that
the fires already have charred
nearly 17 percent of the savannas and forests of Roraima state, which is slightly larger than France.
Barbosa said he expected the region to be scarred for a century.
``The fire has turned 100-year-old plants to ash,'' he said. ``Some slower
animals, like pacas [a type of
rodent], snakes, crocodiles, turtles and armadillos are threatened.''
Those who survive may die of thirst caused by the drought brought by El
Nino, and Barbosa predicted
that 50 species of mammals could die of hunger after the fires are out.
Monday, March 23, 1998 Published at 15:05 GMT
Helicopters fight Amazon fires
Huge tracts of land across northern Brazil are affected
Brazil has launched a long-awaited air war against giant fires
ravaging the northern Amazon as high winds push the flames ever
deeper into virgin rain forest.
Fire authorities sent two Argentine helicopters armed with huge water
buckets against the fast-moving blazes on Sunday, a day ahead of
schedule, officials said.
"They're already at work in the area
around Apiau, where the situation is
most critical," a Roraima state
government spokeswoman said.
"They were able to equip the
helicopters faster than expected."
Fires started by slash-and-burn
farmers and fuelled by high winds
and dry conditions caused by the El
Nino weather phenomenon have
burned out of control in Brazil's
northern Amazon for two months,
sweeping across grasslands and rain
The flames have burned an
immense swath across Roraima, a
state roughly the size of Britain.
Combating the fires has become an international effort.
Fire crews and equipment from Argentina and Venezuela were
rushed to the aid of the hundreds of Brazilian fire-fighters, police
officers and soldiers already at work. The effort is being led by the
Crews were able to outfit the
Argentine helicopters quickly with
130-gallon (500-litre) water buckets
and sent them out over Apiau, some
75 miles (120 km) from state capital
Two remaining helicopters brought
by 120 Argentine fire-fighters were
due to enter the battle on Monday,
The fires are not under control, a
spokeswoman for state Governor
Neudo Campos said. "We're trying
to control the focal points of the
fire, but there are 2,000 of them."
Only rain will extinguish the fires
Despite the air assault and
reinforced ground fire crews, the
fires are likely to burn until the rainy
season begins in the northern
Amazon in late April, experts
Witnesses who travelled with
firefighters said there appeared to
be little the crews could do to stop
new fires from sprouting.
"The flames are everywhere," a
photographer said. "Once in a while
they'll hit a palm tree, and flames
will rush up the trunk, and it will just
Federal officials fear drought
caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon leaves much of the
Amazon ripe for similar devastating blazes in the years ahead.
Thursday March 19 5:20 PM EST
Yanomami Shamans Try to Halt Amazon Fires
By Joelle Diderich
BOA VISTA, Brazil (Reuters) - As fires raged deeper into the Amazon
rainforests Thursday, Yanomami Indian shamans
gathered to perform a sacred ceremony to call down the rains, an Indian activist said.
In the smoke-choked Tototobi village deep in the jungle, five elderly
mystics known as "xapuris" entered a hallucinogenic
trance by snorting powdered bark of the virola tree and chanted spells to "cool the sun," Daisy Alves Francisco said.
"They only gather like this in cases of big outbreaks of disease or
when there are big problems with their environment," said
Francisco, who works with the non-governmental Commission for the Creation of the Yanomami Reservation (CCPY).
She said she had spoken with village members of the primitive Yanomamu people by radio.
Since January, Roraima state, on the border with Venezuela, has been
ravaged by the worst fires in recent memory. There has
been no rain for six months and forecasters say the dry spell, blamed on the El Nino weather phenomenon, will last until late
About 1.5 million acres of highland savannah have been burned and 12.3
million acres -- an area larger than the Netherlands --
is at risk.
The fires are now advancing into the rainforest, ripping through undergrowth
which has lost its natural humidity in the drought
and some 3.5 million acres of jungle has either burned or is surrounded by fire, officials say.
Argentina and Venezuela said Thursday they would send troops and aircraft to Roraima to help.
In Buenos Aires, Argentina's Natural Resources and Environment Secretary
Maria Julia Alsogaray announced that 100
firefighters and four helicopters were leaving for Brazil.
Venezuela's embassy in Brasilia said Caracas would send an as yet unconfirmed
number of men to join about 350 Brazilian
firefighters struggling to contain seven fire fronts in Roraima.
Local officials have yet to agree on whether to rent airborne fire-fighting
equipment. Brazil, despite its huge forests, has no
specialized water-carrying planes or helicopters.
International environment group Friends of the Earth condemned what
it said was a lack of action in Roraima and called for
rich nations to help.
"It is incredible that the world is sitting back and watching these
rainforests burn," the group's Amazon coordinator Roberto
Smeraldi said in a statement. "How much worse will the situation be allowed to get before the international community acts?"
Observers who flew over the Portugal-sized Yanomami Indian reservation
earlier this week said a column of fire had pushed
13 miles into the area.
The government's Indian Agency said fears over burning in the reservation
were exaggerated and the only fires there had been
set by the Yanomami themselves. "Fortunately, the situation is not that critical," said agency official Marcos Ferreira.
But Francisco of the CCPY said she had heard differently. "In Tototobi,
there is panic," she said after contacting one of the
few Portuguese-speaking men from Tototobi.
She said dozens of Yanomamis, scared by thick smoke, had trekked to a health post, hoping to catch a plane out.
"They see smoke north, south, east and west and they want to get out.
But I had to tell them that the airport here in Boa Vista is
closed because of the smoke here too," Francisco said.
A Yanomami Indian leader, speaking with Reuters by radio from another
village, also reported thick smoke but said he and
fellow villagers had put out the only fire in nearby forest.
"The fires are taking over our land, killing the animals we hunt and
the birds in the trees," said Davi Kopenawa Yanomami.
"We need help because the rains are still a long way off."
Kopenawa, a long-time campaigner for his people and one of only a few
Yanomamis with experience of the world beyond the
rainforest, said he feared the fires would open up the normally impenetrable reservation for cattle ranchers and farmers.
"They have no respect, they will take advantage of the fires to bring in cattle and take over our lands," he said