March 28, 1998 in Nation/World

The River Of Fire A Biblical Inferno Ravages The Amazon Rain Forest.

Katherine Ellison Knight Ridder
 

The Yanomamis think it’s Armageddon.

For weeks, the Indians of northwestern Brazil’s Roraima state, about 2,000 miles from Rio de Janeiro, have watched in fear as what officials call the worst fire ever to strike the Amazon rain forest edges toward their huts.

Searching the smoke-filled skies, the Yanomamis see angry spirits, descending plagues and the world’s approaching end. They’ve turned to chanting for hours with their shamans, trusting Stone Age traditions to stave off a particularly 21st-century disaster.

By the most respected of several wildly divergent estimates, the Roraima fire, still blazing out of control, soon will have swept over as much as 25,000 square miles, an area larger than West Virginia, polluting the air, destroying farmland and eliminating the habitats of rare species over a wide area of grassland and some parts of the forest.

“The whole state is smoldering; it’s like it’s boiling,” said John Maier, a photographer who flew over the ruined land this week.

But where the Yanomami see spiritual rage and Armageddon, modern-day environmentalists see bungling bureaucrats, sluggish politicians and general incompetence, raising serious questions about Brazil’s ability to fight the fire next time.

Backed by new research, they worry that the combination of uncontrolled logging, colonization and dry weather in the region guarantees there’ll be a next time soon.

“We have the world’s most important forest and no real policy or even fire-fighting equipment to protect it. It’s criminal,” said Paulo Adario, Brazil’s representative for Greenpeace.

On March 22 - exactly two months after Roraima’s governor declared a state of calamity and began pleading for federal aid - the federal government responded.

Roraima’s governor asked for $12 million; he was promised $3.5 million.

Since March 22, 90 federal soldiers and 154 firefighters from the federal district of Brasilia have joined the beleaguered team of 29 Roraima police officers who had been battling the flames with urban fire-fighting equipment.

In the early stages, when the government might have acted most efficiently, efforts were hampered by a dearth of reliable information about the size and location of the fire.

Even if Brazilian officials had located the fires earlier, they had limited ability to stop them. Brazil has no specialized planes for that purpose.

Aspasia Camargo, who resigned last year as head of the federal environment ministry, has complained that without a flying SWAT team, “we’re simply incompetent” to protect the forests.

(This past week has been marked by increasing offers of international support. Over the weekend, Argentina sent four helicopters equipped with huge buckets of water, while Venezuela sent civil defense workers. The World Bank has offered a loan of up to $5 million.

The United States has made no concrete offers, said U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Lucille Di Palma. However, U.S. officials are talking with Brazilian authorities about everything, “from sending backpacks to Marines,” said an American involved in the discussions.

United Nations officials said they are waiting for Brazil to approve sending specialists to investigate what more aid is needed. In November, the U.N. offered Brazil general forest firefighting assistance, in view of the Amazon’s new vulnerability, but was rebuffed. Brazil’s military is prickly about what it regards as international interference in the region.

Meanwhile, the fire’s toll has included one confirmed human death: a 3-month-old girl, whose preexisting respiratory problems were aggravated by the heavy smoke. State officials say 12,000 cattle have died, hundreds of families are homeless, and relief workers have given thousands of food baskets to farmers who have lost their crops.

Although the fire is finally being fought from the air, experts say it’s too late to stem damage. Heavy smoke is making flights impossible much of the time. But more importantly, the fire is raging through the underbrush, not the canopy, said Reinaldo Barbosa, of Brazil’s federally funded National Institute for Amazon Research.

“Only a great deal of water would help,” Barbosa said. “It’s going to have to rain.”

The Roraima fire, started by small farmers clearing their land with fire as they have done for centuries, began to get out of control last November. Accidents have happened in the past, but heavy rains always came to prevent major damage. This year was different.

Critics contend that because the government knew of the drought dangers posed this year by El Nino, officials should have acted early last winter to prevent farmers in Roraima from setting fires.

Ibama, Brazil’s federal wildlife protection agency, routinely authorizes such fires, and did not stop authorizations until Feb. 2, after the disaster was well underway.

Eduardo Martins, head of Ibama, said the government acted properly. “This was an unprecedented situation,” he said, “caused by climactic conditions, not government inaction. The same thing could have happened in the United States, or Australia.”

He said Ibama will continue to authorize - “with proper care” - farmers’ fires throughout the Amazon this year, despite a demand last week from Greenpeace that they stop.

Yet Steve Schwartzman, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., and other experts warn of a new and unprecedented risk of forest destruction when the burning season starts later this year in most of the rest of the Amazon, which unlike Roraima is below the equator.

“This is an early warning signal of an extremely dangerous and potentially catastrophic situation,” Schwartzman said.

As for the Yanomamis, waiting in their jungle huts, the threat to them is now unclear. Wednesday, Martins said Roraima’s 10,000 Indians weren’t in serious danger.

Claudia Andujar, director of the pro-Yanomami Commission, a relief agency working in the villages, said on Friday that a relief worker flew over the area two days earlier and said the fire was 20 miles inside the Indians’ reserve.

“Where would they go? Florida?” she asked. “They’d probably flee deeper into the jungle if anyone tried to take them out.”


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