By Fabio Teixeira
Farmers living along the Trans-Amazonian Highway, near Humaita, a rural town deep in the Amazon, would rather not use fire to clear forest land so they can grow crops and raise cattle, their local representatives say.
But without the heavy equipment they would need to remove vegetation, the mainly poor farmers have little choice other than burning it, in order to feed their families – one reason this year’s fires have been so numerous, local officials say.
“The number of fires has increased,” Humaita councilman Antonio Carlos Almeida told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. But people living near the town “need to farm to survive”, so have few options, he said.
It is a commonly held view in this town of 55,000 in Brazil’s northwestern Amazonas state – one of the areas most affected by rainforest fires and smoke this year.
Last month, Brazil’s space research agency, INPE, revealed the number of fires in the Amazon this year was the highest since 2010. And deforestation rose for the fourth straight month in August from a year earlier, it said on Friday.
Humaita is among the top 20 municipalities in the country with the most hectares deforested from January to August, according to INPE data.
The Amazon – the world’s largest tropical rainforest – absorbs planet-warming carbon dioxide, supports rainfall in South America and is considered crucial to curbing climate change globally.
An international backlash against the surge of fires this year eventually led Brazil’s conservative president, Jair Bolsonaro, to order the military to work on dousing the flames.
But fire has long been a key tool for agricultural expansion in the Amazon, with farmers burning forest or logged land to clear it for crop production or cattle grazing.
Seven councilmen from Humaita who spoke to a Thomson Reuters Foundation reporter said they saw continuing poverty in the region as the main driver of fires consuming the Amazon.
This year’s particularly large blazes illustrate the ongoing lack of government support for development in towns like Humaita, they said.
Bolsonaro has made no secret of his disdain for Brazil’s environmental agency, known as Ibama, which he has publicly rebuked as an impediment to the nation’s development.
Since he took office in January, Ibama’s budget has shrunk by a quarter, according to internal government data collected by the opposition PSOL party and shared with Reuters.
New leadership at Ibama also has made it tougher for the agency to crack down on illegal logging, farming and mining that have despoiled nearly 12,000 square kilometers (4,633 square miles) in the Amazon this year, former and current employees told Reuters.
Like Bolsonaro, some of Humaita’s politicians see international complaints about deforestation in Brazil as interference in the country’s own affairs.
Councilman Ivo Dias Azevedo said he believed international bodies wanted to take over the rainforest for themselves.
Other councilmen do not share that view, but said local people had no way to sustain themselves without resorting to practices harmful to the environment.
They said support for sustainable development – from Brazil’s government or international organisations – rarely reached communities such as Humaita.
“I understand that the fires are out of hand, but we need a policy that benefits us. Our people live in poverty,” said councilman Russell Lello de Miranda.
He believes the international community has unfairly branded farmers as “villains”, ignoring that most just want to survive.
Fires started by poor farmers are common, but the increase this year is due to criminal gangs grabbing large swathes of forest and cutting it down to expand farmland, said federal prosecutor Daniel Lobo, based in the Amazon city of Porto Velho.
“Large deforestations are normally the result of an action by organised groups. It demands resources, it costs money,” said Lobo, part of an environmental task-force in the Amazon region.
In the Amazon, deforestation is legal only when authorised by Ibama, but the practice is widespread nonetheless.
Compounding the problem, Lobo said, was that farmers historically have forged documents to give an appearance of legality to what amounts to grabbing of government-owned land.
While Humaita is part of the state of Amazonas, it is physically closer to the neighbouring state of Rondonia’s capital, which means the town is often overlooked by its own state government, councilmen said.
It lies at the crossroads between three towns where fires have raged this year, straining the city’s health.
“You wander by the river at night and you can hardly breathe” from all the smoke, said councilman Joao Aragao.
The relationship between Humaita’s residents and environmental groups and agencies can be tense, with conflicts having erupted in the past.
The most recent involved another activity damaging to the environment: gold mining.
Along the Madeira River, which passes through the town, boats panning illegally for gold are a common sight.
The boats dredge soil from the river, then search through it for gold, disrupting natural systems and wildlife.
In October 2017, federal agents destroyed some mining boats. Miners protested and burned down Ibama’s Humaita headquarters.
Five months later, the city’s mayor, Herivaneo Vieira de Oliveira, was arrested for involvement in the protest, but was later released.
He declined an interview request because he was “out of the loop” on this year’s Amazon fires after 10 days away on a trip.
His cabinet secretary, Elias Pereira, said the city had done what it could to fight the fires, but did not consider their number out of the ordinary for this time of year.
He said the mayor’s arrest, in 2018, was a mistake, and he had only greeted the protesting miners before they turned violent and attacked the federal building. The mayor did not participate in the attack, Pereira said.
Joel Guerra, a Humaita councilman critical of Bolsonaro, said he expected little to change in the town in terms of forest burning, even after international condemnation of the fires.
Farmers, he believes, feel emboldened by Brazil’s president.
“You wait and see: next year it’s going to be the same. We will have four years of this,” he said.