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Evidence ‘unfounded’ against NGO volunteers accused of setting Amazon fires

  • The Amazonian town of Alter do Chão in Santarém municipality, Pará state, Brazil attracts 190,000 tourists annually. A battle between environmentalists (wanting to preserve the area’s forests), and land grabbers (wanting to construct high-rises and other profitable infrastructure), has been raging there for many years.
  • As part of the wave of fires sweeping the Amazon this year, widespread blazes were set in the Alter do Chão Reserve. In the wake of the fires, police surprisingly arrested four members of Brigada de Alter, an NGO. The four are volunteer firefighters who helped put out September’s blazes.
  • Mongabay has acquired police arresting documents revealing what lawyers say is “unfounded” and flimsy evidence. Police claimed the four set the fires with the intent of taking photos and selling them to the World Wide Fund for Nature.
  • While the investigation is ongoing, analysts say land grabbers had the best motive for setting the fires. However, critics add, the police focus on the NGO is in line with President Jair Bolsonaro’s ongoing campaign of rhetoric discrediting Brazilian and international socioenvironmental NGOs and undermining their work in the Amazon.
Burnt Amazon forest in Alter do Chão in September. Image by Jader Paes/Agência Pará/Fotos Públicas.

“Don’t give money to NGOs!” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro told viewers during a live stream on November 28. His urging came following the arrest of four volunteer firefighters belonging to NGO Brigada de Alter, accused of intentionally starting Amazon wildfires — arrests viewed by many as the latest government attack on the environment and its defenders.

A police operation in Pará state accused four environmentalists (Daniel Gutierrez, João Victor Pereira Romano, Gustavo de Almeida Fernandes, and Marcelo Cwerver) of perpetrating the horrific four-day fires in the Alter do Chão Reserve in September, fires which the volunteers helped extinguish. Police also raided the headquarters of another NGO closely linked to the fire brigade, the Health and Happiness Project, and seized documents as part of their investigation.

The town of Alter do Chão — site of the fires — is a popular tourist destination nicknamed the “Brazilian Caribbean,” with forests and a paradisiacal stretch of white sand beach that has been an Amazon battleground for decades, seeing fights between murky real estate interests and conservationists.

“Alter [do Chão] lives 100 percent off tourism,” says Alter do Chão community council president Junior Sousa. “People are scared that [the natural locale] will become a place full of buildings that no one wants to visit.”

The town of just 6,000 residents, part of Santarém municipality, attracts 190,000 tourists annually according to the Santarém Tourist Department, drawn there by its intact tropical scenery and crystal clear waters. But segments of the real estate sector, along with land grabbers, keen on gaining a slice of increasingly valuable land, want looser environmental protections. Some analysists suggest the fires were likely set by unknown members of these groups taking the law into their own hands.

The town is divided in two. According to local sources (some of which requested anonymity for safety reasons), on one side, there is a rich oligarchy of families who want to develop modern beachfront buildings and condominiums. On the other, ecotourism businesses and civil society who are against edification. In a series of protests over the last years, the pro-nature group has been successful in barring changes that would allow for large-scale business ventures.

The four volunteer firefighters after their first press conference. Their heads were shaved upon arrest. Daniel Gutierrez, João Victor Pereira Romano, Gustavo de Almeida Fernandes, and Marcelo Cwerver are long-time environmentalists and run ecotourism businesses in Alter do Chão. Image by Tiago Silveira.

A history of NGO harassment

The arrest of the four Fire Brigade members, who were also on the frontlines extinguishing the September wildfires, sparked surprise and outrage from Brazilian civil society who say the bogus charges aim to discredit the work of reputable NGOs in the Amazon. “This attempt at criminalizing and persecuting NGOs that have a history of dedication to the protection of the forest is unacceptable,” said former environment minister Marina Silva on Twitter.

The four men were released shortly after their arrest, though continue to be under investigation. They donned bright yellow shirts emblazoned with the volunteer fire brigade logo, and spoke to the press: “We receive daily threats from WhatsApp groups from Alter do Chão. That really scares us,” said Daniel Gutierrez. “We just want to go back to our normal lives and continue working with the fire brigade.”

The fire brigade isn’t the only NGO under assault in the town. “We are being massacred and threatened,” says Caetano Scannavino, coordinator for the Health and Happiness Project. “There is an ongoing defamation campaign against NGOs and anyone linked to environmental and indigenous movements.”

Just two days before the arrests, members representing the area’s environmental and indigenous organizations submitted an official complaint alleging irregularities in the construction of a condominium complex. That complaint came as one of the most recent rounds in the decades-long battle over zoning, development and conservation in Alter do Chão.

A 2017 bill sought to change zoning rules allowing construction of high-rise buildings and legalizing extensive deforestation, but was defeated. Local NGOs say they remain in the forefront of efforts preventing abrasive development and profit-led degradation, while preserving the natural character of the Brazilian Caribbean. “We managed to revert the bill,” Scannavino told Mongabay, “and it is possible that this bothered other sectors.”

Santarém Mayor Nélio Aguiar says there are sufficiently rigorous environmental laws in place, and believes that those regulations are vital to the local economy. But he adds, “We need to conciliate development with nature using ecological tourism as a key tool.” The mayor called this year’s fires criminal, and was surprised to see the volunteers hauled in as suspects. “This is a group of volunteers that were trained by public firefighters and their mission is to combat the fires,” Aguiar noted.

Volunteer firefighters hug family members after their conditional release on bail. Image courtesy of Brigada Alter do Chão/Fotos Públicas.

Evidence against fire brigade flimsy

In an audio file obtained by news media outlet Repórter Brasil, Aguiar phoned the state governor Helder Barbalho during the fires, asking for help to contain the flames and warning that armed men who have the support of the police are behind the fires, casting suspicion on the validity of the local police report fingering the NGO.

The impartiality of Alexandre Rizzi, the judge issuing the fire brigade arrest and search warrant, was also called into question, when a 1994 news clip surfaced of him criticizing Greenpeace activists for protesting illegal wood harvesting. Rizzi, the owner of Maderizzi, a now-defunct logging company, says his past has no bearing on his ability to fairly judge the case: “I have never had conflict with any organizations.… I carry on firm and ready to judge any citizen regardless of creed, ideology or political party,” Rizzi said. State-level police have been given 30 days to complete their investigation. Critics say the arrest and search warrants Rizzi signed contain “no evidence.”

Mongabay gained access to the police files. Among the proof presented is an intercepted quote by Gustavo de Almeida Fernandes, one of the accused ande Health and Happiness Project’s logistics director. He tells an unnamed caller: “There’s going to be a lot of fire, including on the routes you’ll be on.”

The police interpreted this as incriminatory: “it is clear that he is referring to orchestrated fires since it’s not possible to foresee the location of a fire,” said the report. But Defense lawyer Michel Durans dismisses that possibility, noting that the location of contested forests is common knowledge to local residents.

In another intercepted communication, one fire brigade volunteer is described as being the person who “most burns” and “puts out green in the Amazon,” an apparent joking reference to the fire brigade member’s marijuana smoking. The investigation interprets the statement as an admission of guilt.

A day after the arrests, the Federal Police Bureau came forward, saying that a federal investigation of the fires has been underway since September, but with opposite findings. “No elements point to the participation of volunteer firefighters or civil society organizations,” it said in a statement. “On the contrary, the federal investigation points to land grabbers, disorderly occupation and real estate speculation as the causes of environmental damage in Alter.”

Mongabay reached out to both federal and state police but was informed neither were giving interviews.

Police report excerpt screen shot Portuguese translation to English: In an intercepted conversation between Gustavo, the director of logistics at NGO Project Health and Happiness, and the caller identified as Cecilia, he warns her to come prepared to Alter do Chão, because, in his own words, “there will be a lot of fire, including on the routes that you’ll be passing” [Note: not an exact quote] making it perceptible that he is referring to orchestrated fires since it’s not possible to predict, even at this time of year, the dates and locations where there will be fire […]

Bolsonaro’s inflammatory role

A surge in August-September wildfires and 2019 deforestation has come in the wake of President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental rhetoric, reportedly emboldening ranchers, farmers and land grabbers to commit crimes without fear of prosecution. Wildfires explicitly set in the president’s name occurred on Aug 10, called the Day of Fire, in Novo Progresso municipality in Pará state.

Also since Bolsonaro came to power, federal environmental agency employees have faced firing and intimidation and his administration has announced plans to open indigenous territories to mining. In August, the president fired the director of the Brazilian Institute of Space Research (INPE) after dubbing as a “a lie” new data showing a sharp increase in Amazon deforestation. Recent satellite data shows a 41 percent increase in deforestation in the state of Pará between 2018 and 2019.

Bolsonaro early on blamed NGOs for this year’s Amazon wildfires without any evidence: “This could be criminal activity by those ‘NGOers’ to damage my reputation and the Brazilian government,” he told journalists outside the presidential palace.

The police statement against the fire brigade seems to be in line with Bolsonaro’s narrative. It claims that the volunteers set the fires in order to sell pictures to the World Wildlife Foundation for personal financial gain. The accused, who work as tourist guides in the region, stress that their volunteer work is unpaid and that their aim is to protect nature.

Their lawyers refute police accusations, calling the evidence so far presented “unfounded.” Durans notes that “The audio transcripts and videos presented so far are incredibly fragile and have been analyzed completely out of context.”

The governor of Pará, Helder Barbalho, replaced the head of investigations on Nov 28 to “clear things up in the fastest and most transparent way,” and police Internal Affairs is now investigating the case.

Banner image caption: The four volunteer firefighters accused of setting the fires. Image by Tiago Silveira.

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