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Fire Out Of Control In Parched Amazon 3-Month-Old Blaze Threatens Yanomami

Tue., March 17, 1998

A 3-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.

At a news conference Monday, Gov. Neudo Campos of Roraima state said the blaze at one point reached 12 miles 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 Defense bureau, admitted in a radio interview.

Less than 1 inch 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 Monday that some 1.5 million acres had been burned - about 3 percent of the state - a figure way below earlier official estimates of 25 percent. Critics had called the earlier figures inflated.

The fire advances about six miles a day, and firefighters are almost powerless to stop it, Campos told reporters in Boa Vista, 2,100 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.

Unless something is done soon, the flames threaten virgin rain forest and the villages of the Yanomami. The Associated Press was not immediately able to obtain permission to enter the reservation.

But a helicopter flight Monday revealed miles of scorched earth that was once green pasture and savanna in Roraima, and huge clouds of smoke rising from a forest fire that was fast approaching the Indian land. Rivers have all but dried out, most showing more sand than water.

In Apiau, a village 60 miles west of Boa Vista, 28-year-old Jose Wilson Onofre Ramalho stood on what was left of his 500 acre farm. “Everything went up in flames so fast - like gasoline burning,” he said.

Another villager, Erisabeth Alves Pereira, walked through her burned out palm trees. “I haven’t seen anything like this,” she said.

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 25-million-acre reservation. The outsiders brought guns and diseases that have riddled the population and corrupted lifestyles.

The state is distributing 30,000 food baskets to fire victims, including 3,000 in Indian reservations that cover 55 percent of the state. But most went to small farmers who have lost their homes and crops to the fire.

Meanwhile, Campos said, firefighters and army soldiers have built 6,000 small reservoirs and are digging wells to get water to combat the blaze.

Political wrangling has delayed concrete action to stop the fires. Campos says federal bureaucrats don’t care about poor, remote Roraima, while some suspect the state inflated the reports of destruction to obtain federal loans.


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