CCPY Update 98 - March 1998
THE WORST FIRE IN THE HISTORY OF THE AMAZON: A DISASTER FOR THE YANOMAMI
The biggest fire in the history of the Amazon has turned millions of acres in Roraima, Brazil's most Northernmost state, into a blackened waste littered with the corpses of dead wildlife and cattle. After sweeping across the savannah in the north of the state, the fires now threaten the Yanomami reserve in the west. The damage to the region's biodiversity is incalculable. For much of the population of Roraima it is a disaster: crops, livestock, and homes burnt, food and water hard to get, respiratory diseases, smoke-filled air and unbearable heat.
The Yanomami, seeing for the first time the sun and the mountain tops hidden by huge clouds of smoke as the fires creep nearer, fear it is the beginning of the end of the world.
FIRES REACH THE YANOMAMI AREA
On 24th March Carlo Zacquini of the CCPY flew over the Yanomami reserve to see the extent of the damage: he reported that for over an hour the plane followed a line of fire advancing from east to west, maybe thirty kilometres of it inside the Yanomami reserve towards Catrimani. He saw also 15 firespots, some inside the reserve. He described the Funai post at Apiau surrounded by burnt vegetation and fire advancing along one side of the Mucajai river towards another Funai post. There are Indian villages on the other side of the river.
The plane flew in and out of huge smoke clouds.
The pall of smoke hanging over the area has made it practically impossible for medical teams to reach villages where there have been outbreaks of malaria.
Over 600 indians are now camped around the Toototobi post in search of food, water and medical assistance.
The Yanomami foresee hungry times ahead because of the huge death toll of animals, birds, fish. One said "So many animals dying - what will we eat?"
No rain has fallen in Roraima since August 1997. The drought, which has affected all of the Amazon region, is being blamed on the climate changes provoked by El Nino.
Five months of drought meant that by January the rivers had been reduced to unnavegable streams, the grasslands were as dry as tinderboxes and the rainforest had lost much of its humidity.
But January is the month that farmers clear undergrowth for planting using the traditional slash and burn method. Because they have no other means of clearing the land, they went ahead as usual.
The fires got out of hand and spread over large areas of savannah, burning cattle ranches and the pastures, gardens and orchards of many Macuxi villages.
On 22nd January Roraima governor Neudo Campos declared a state of public calamity because of the drought and appealed for federal funds to sink wells and dig small reservoirs. His appeal was ignored, apparently because of the inflated costs quoted.
Throughout February the governor continued to appeal for federal funds without response.
On 1st February IBAMA, the federal government environment agency banned farm fires: but many farmers, unaware of the dangers or ignorant of the ban, continued to light fires to clear their land. The local IBAMA Superintendent said it was impossible to supervise 17,000 farms.
FIGHTING THE FIRES
The Roraima government had no forest fire expertise or equipment to draw on. The local fire brigade was trained for dealing only with urban situations.
Roraima authorities declared themselves impotent to stop the fires spreading. Civil defence head Kleber Cerquinho said "We have lost control of the situation."
In mid-March Governor Neudo Campos asked for funds to hire 22 specially equipped fire-fighting helicopters from a Venezuelan company, but this was turned down by federal authorities as unnecessary.
On March 19th the secretary for Regional Policies, Fernando Catao went to Boa Vista to discuss federal aid to the state government but admitted that only the rains could extinguish the fires.
Of the R$12 million requested by the governor, R$2 million was promised.
Several hundred volunteer firemen from other Brazilian states and from Argentina and Venezuela began arriving in Roraima to help the local force of 150 firefighters.
Argentina also supplied 4 helicopters equipped with monsoon buckets.
19th March The Army's 1st Jungle Battalion took over coordination of the fire fighting efforts, providing communications between the groups of firemen. Soldiers were sent to cut trails through the forest and protect firemen from wild animals fleeing the flames. The priority of the firefighters was to protect properties threatened by the flames in areas like Apiau.
On March 20th seven new firepoints appeared in the south, along the BR-174 highway.
On March 24th Neudo Campos appealed for more help saying "The situation is still not under control. Please help us. We need planes to spray water and more men. We've never faced a fire like this before. It's an ecological disaster." On March 25th the Roraima government appealed to the federal government to hire Russian planes equipped with water tanks. Another 500 firemen from other regions of Brazil were expected in Roraima.
FEDERAL GOVERNMENT REACTION
Although federal agencies like IBAMA, FNS and FUNAI have local offices in Roraima, the federal government was slow to realise the extent of the catastrophe. Only when the Amazon fires became headline news in the international press did the government take action.
Friends of the Earth accused the government of failing to reply to various offers of assistance from the Disaster Relief Branch of the UN Environment Programme ( UNEP).
UNEP's offer was to send a small team of specialists to Roraima to elaborate an emergency plan, which would include the use of the most advanced technologies as used in Indonesia. If accepted by the Brazilian government, the plan could be put into action in 3 or 4 days.
On March 24th, four months after UNDEP's first offer of help to fight large-scale fires, the government announced that it had accepted.
Immediately military leaders in the Amazon criticised the decision, General Luis Gonzaga Lessa, Military Commander of the Amazon vetoed it saying that international aid was unwelcome, because it meant foreign interference in the Amazon.
General Luiz Edmundo Carvalho, commander of the lst Jungle Brigade said overseas aid was unnecessary, because the Amazon Military Command could offer all the help needed.
This split between the military and the government led President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to call a special meeting of the Foreign Affairs and National Defence Council to discuss the situation in Roraima on March 26th.
At the meeting it was decided to accept a US$5 million World Bank loan for fighting the fire and set up a task force under General Carvalho to coordinate all activities in Roraima. In Brasilia another committee headed by the National Secretary for Regional Policies, Fernando Catao will analyse the many international offers of aid which have apparently already been received by the Brazilian government, but remained unanswered. According to a newspaper report, it was also decided to begin a campaign to change the image held by world public opinion that Brazil is not concerned about the fate of the Amazon.
Official estimates of how much of Roraima's 221 million hectares have been burnt vary. Governor Neudo Campos said 25 percent, the federal government claimed it was only 3 percent. INPA ( (National Amazon Research Institute) reckoned 21 percent, INPE (the Space Research agency) put it at 12 to 16 percent.
Reinaldo Imbrozio Barbosa, INPA researcher in Boa Vista said the fires will affect the biodiversity and environmental equilibrium of the Northern Amazon contributing to an increase in greenhouse gases like carbon and methane in the atmosphere.
He believes it will take at least 100 years for the rainforest to recover.
The drying out of the forest will make it more susceptible to fires in the future, especially as the forecast for 1998 is of below average rainfall in the Amazon.
In Roraima itself there has been a huge toll of wildlife, as animals and birds fleeing the fire die of hunger and thirst. Monkeys, deer, wild boar, anteaters, sloths, tortoises are among the species affected. Hunters are said to be taking advantage of the animals despair, shooting the ones that crowd around the few waterholes they find.
The river Branco, normally used by barges, has been reduced from a depth of 8 metres to shallow pools only 40 cm deep, interspersed with sandbanks, and can be crossed on foot: the river Mucajai is down to half its normal width.
Two of the state's ecological reserves have been hit by the fires.
Fires have leapt the river Uraricoera into Maraca, which contains a research centre and examples of every species in the state.
Macuxi villages in the savannah are surrounded by acres of ashes and dead trees
Up to 12,000 out of 400,000 cattle have died. 300/400 dying a day from hunger and thirst.
Many of the state's small farmers have lost everything: food production has been wiped out in the areas affected by fire.
Eighty percent of the savannah much of which had been turned into rice and soybean plantations and cattle pastures, has been devastated by fires. The indigenous populations numbering 22,000 have lost cultivated areas and sustainable agriculture projects and face hunger and thirst.
THE HEALTH SITUATION
The population of Roraima is suffering from the effects of the prolonged drought, fires and smoke.
In the capital, the numbers needing treatment at the children's hospital have doubled from 100 to 200 a day, most of them with respiratory problems.
On 16th March an emergency meeting of medical professionals of NISI -RR (Interinstitutional Nucleus on Indigenous Health in Roraima) concluded that the fires had produced an environmental and epidemiological catastrophe for the indian populations.
In the Yanomami area the NISI-RR reported that subsistence crops like manioc, banana and sugarcane were badly affected by the long drought. Entire communities whose streams and rivers had dried up, have had to travel long distances in search of water while others survive on water from holes dug in the earth.
Where their gardens have been burnt, the Yanomami are left without food to supplement game and fish now scarce because of the drought and fire.
Malaria has increased significantly, and seriously ill patients cannot be removed to hospital because of the difficult flying conditions.
Malnutrition, epidemics of respiratory diseases and an increase in malaria cases are now expected.
They concluded that weakened communities will find it more difficult to get food from the forest and the ecological disaster could produce plagues of pests.
THE YANOMAMI VIEW
For the Yanomami the explanation for the environmental disaster that is engulfing them involves the goldminers who have invaded their lands to seek gold. Legends say that if the minerals that strengthen the earth and enrich the soil are removed, poisonous smoke will cover the earth.
The smoke that now covers the forest brings sickness: "In the forest, in the mountains, there is sickness. If it burns, we will die" said one leader.
A Yanomami shaman, Paulinho foresaw the fires in a dream: he saw the sky catch fire and the spirits die. Next day when smoke covered the sky, his community fled in fear.
Brazil was entirely unprepared for such a disaster. Everyone, both government, NGOs and indigenous organisations, reacted too slowly.
The federal government has no clear mechanism for responding to a disaster situation: different agencies announced contradictory measures and conclusions.
The disaster revealed the total lack of any preparation for forest firefighting, the absence of any specialised personnel or equipment anywhere in the Brazilian Amazon. Although the Army and the Air Force have many bases, planes, helicopters and battalions in Roraima, they have no firefighting equipment or trained personnel, and were just as slow to react as the civilians.
Climate forecasts suggest less rainfall, more drought and therefore more fires in the Amazon region this year. This is not one off situation, but a pattern that will be continued.
Therefore not only emergency help is needed, but long term solutions.
IMMEDIATE NEEDS OF THE YANOMAMI
1. Food aid for the Yanomami to cover the period until they can be self supporting again (one year is the estimate).
2. Funds for the purchase of the anti-malarial drug meflaquine and other necessary drugs.
3. Funds for extra flying time needed to take assistance to the sick in the villages.
4. Funds for digging a well at the Balawau health post
1. The Brazilian government should immediately accept the aid, in the form of know how, equipment and funds, being offered by other countries and the UN.
2. The G7 Tropical Forests Pilot Programme should condition further disbursements to the establishment by Brazil of a forest firefighting plan including the training of personnel, including indigenous personnel, and the acquisition of special equipment.
3. A conference of government agencies, environmental and indigenous organisations and farmers should be convened to discuss a new model of sustainable development in the Amazon region, that would substitute the use of fire by other technologies.
4. We would like to see the UK government's previous offer of technology for the recovery of degraded areas revived.
YANOMAMI COMMUNITIES AND POPULATION THREATENED BY FIRES
(B) Also at risk
*areas most directly threatened by fire now
Includes Data From FNS (National Health Foundation)
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