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Misinformation and blame spread concerning sources of Amazon fires

  • With the global spotlight on Brazil’s Amazon fires, those in and out of government are playing a blame game, pointing fingers and often using unsubstantiated claims to target those they say set the blazes.
  • Pres. Jair Bolsonaro, without evidence, has blamed NGOs disgruntled at losing international Amazon funding. He also accused state governors for not fighting the fires. One ruralist even blamed ICMBio (Brazil’s national park service) for setting the blazes, though she has since been charged with setting fires in a protected area.
  • Conservationists put the blame squarely on Bolsonaro and his deregulation and defunding of government institutions, including IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, which used to regularly fight fires and arrest perpetrators.
  • IBAMA claims that, though warned days in advance of “A Day of Fire” in Pará state, it received no law enforcement backup from federal or state authorities. This allowed ruralists (radical agricultural advocates) in Altamira and Novo Progresso to set hundreds of fires on August 10-11, with little fear of fines or prosecution.
Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles (left), with President Jair Bolsonaro (right). Image by Marcos Corrêa/PR.

The extent to which President Jair Bolsonaro will change his much criticized environmental policies after this year’s Amazon fires became global news is still unknown. But his accusation, unbacked by evidence, last Wednesday accusing environmental NGOs of lighting the blazes seems to align with the unproven accusations of at least one cattle rancher Nair Brizola, from Cachoeira da Seca district, in Altamira, Pará state, published this Sunday by the magazine Globo Rural. Such wild claims are indicative of the rumors and innuendo now sweeping the country regarding the causes of the fires.

The rancher claims that officials from ICMBio (Brazil’s national park service) set fire to the forest in her region. “There was a black motorbike setting everything on fire here. And they were on my property with that motorbike strapped over their truck,” the Globo Rural account said.

She went on: “The trucks, they are doing all this terror with ICMbio. President Bolsonaro is right when he says that those NGOs are setting fire…. The fire set by the road is not from farmers.” Brizola claimed the trucks in question were imprinted with the ICMBio logo.

Brizola is a ruralist (a radical agribusiness advocate), and a former candidate for councilor in Guarantã do Norte municipality, in Mato Grosso state. According to the news website O Eco, Brizola was fined in mid-August for “destroying 70.9 hectares [175 acres] of forest in the Amazon biome with the use of fire within the Serra do Cachimbo Biological Reserve, one of the most deforested conservation units in Pará.” She received a fine of R$ 1 million (US$ 240,000) for acts of deforestation, illegal burning and seizure of protected land.

To fully understand the claims against ICMBio, one needs some back story. Last April, ICMBio president Adalberto Eberhard resigned and three directors also left their posts. A fourth director learned of his dismissal by Environment Minister Ricardo Salles through social media. Eberhard was against Bolsonaro’s planned merger of ICMBio with IBAMA, Brazil’s federal environmental agency, which has yet to take place.

Salles since then has replaced all of the ICMbio directors with military police officers who worked with him during his time as São Paulo state secretary of the environment (2016-2017) and as private secretary of then São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin. So, one could possibly infer, if ICMbio agents were truly burning forest, they were either doing so on Bolsonaro’s new directors’ orders, or they were renegade officials setting fires.

The photo used by the Folho do Progresso newspaper to report on the “Day of Fire,” an August 10 event that the ruralist supported newspaper itself promoted five days before the fires were intentionally set. Image by Folha do Progresso.

It’s the fault of others!

A few days earlier, Bolsonaro raised unfounded suspicions against NGOs as possible arsonists in the Amazon burning: “There may be criminal actions by those ‘ongeiros‘ in order to draw attention against me, against the government of Brazil…. In my view, there is interest from those NGOs [to promote burnings], which represent interests from outside Brazil.” Bolsonaro claims the NGOs set the blazes after being angered over the freezing of international Amazon funds due to the government’s anti-environmental policies.

The President also blamed Amazon state governments: “There are governors, whom I don’t want to name, that are tolerant with what is going on and put the fault on the federal government. There are states in the northern region whose governors aren’t doing a thing to help fight the fires, and are enjoying [what is happening].”He offered no evidence for his claim.

Amid Bolsonaro’s and ruralists’ innuendos, others are faulting the failure of both federal and state agencies. For example, it has been reported that the independent litigators of the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) warned IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, three days ahead of the so-called “Day of Fire” in Pará state, as a large group of farmers planned a massive series of burnings in the municipalities of Altamira and Novo Progresso.

The “Day of Fire” had been no secret. Plans for the event were published in the local newspaper Folha do Progresso, controlled by ruralists, on August 5. The MPF in turn requested IBAMA prepare a contingency plan to curb the plot, and arrest and fine wrongdoers. But IBAMA didn’t act and hundreds of blazes were lit, some legal, others illegal, on the weekend of August 10.

Two days after this criminal action, IBAMA reported the reason for its failure: it had requested law enforcement support from the National Public Security Force, controlled by Sergio Moro — he was appointed justice minister by Bolsonaro, possibly, say critics, as a reward for convicting and keeping former president Lula in jail and out of the 2018 election. Lula had been favored in the polls to win if freed and allowed to run. IBAMA also reports asking the Pará state military police for assistance, without success.

Prosecutor Paulo de Tarso Moreira Oliveira, who is leading the investigation into the “Day of Fire,” stated that the ability to enforce environmental infractions has been weakened by a lack of support from Pará state. “IBAMA’s base in Novo Progresso has been withdrawn, [and its] operations scheduled for the second half of this year, corresponding to the dry period, were entirely canceled.” IBAMA typically sets up a base in Pará every year during the fire season, but with threats of violence high against the agency, it chose not to establish a post in 2019 without federal or state police protection.

Joenia Wapichana, the first elected indigenous federal House deputy woman in the country, said that “land invasions and the increasing activity of miners and loggers [and other illegal groups] are the real cause of the Amazon fires, fueled by backwardness, omission, and the irresponsibility of the federal government’s environmental policies for the region.”

COLNIZA, MATO GROSSO, BRAZIL. Aerial view of burned areas in the Amazon rainforest, in the city of Colniza, Mato Grosso state. (Photo: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace)
The Amazon rainforest burns within the municipality of Colniza, Mato Grosso state. Image by Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace.

In related news, the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) has given ten days, starting from August 23, for both the Ministries of Environment and of Science and Technology to prove that rising 2019 deforestation data provided by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) is unreliable, as alleged by the Bolsonaro government.

The MPF gave the same deadline to the Ministries of Agriculture and of Mines and Energy, ordering them to provide information on what they are doing to comply with the National Climate Change Policy Act of 2009, as well as with the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, ratified by the federal executive branch in 2017. Bolsonaro is a climate change denier who threatened to pull out of the Paris Agreement during his election campaign, a pledge from which he later backpedaled. There are strong signs the administration is doing little to keep its Paris carbon reduction pledge.

Rage over the Amazon fires, and strongly worded accusations over their source are blooming from all sides of the political spectrum in Brazil: Elio Gaspari, a columnist from Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, suggested: “Just put in prison half a dozen of the agro-troglodytes [elite agribusiness ruralists] that took advantage of the change of government to set fire to the forest. Those who know the Amazon are aware that there is no point in arresting pawns. Agro-troglodytes are in beautiful townhouses and spend big holidays in Miami.”

Banner image caption: Aerial view of a large burned area in the city of Candeiras do Jamari in the state of Rondônia. Image by Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace.

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