THE AMAZON RAINFOREST – Media spotlight, help or hindrance?

It’s been a funny few weeks, funny odd rather than funny ha-ha. I have come to find that pretty much everything breaks or wears out at the 8 month mark of travelling. Unfortunately for FireTreks this has included an exploding (poor excuse for a) laptop. Followed by the effects of Coronavirus, this post and many others are coming a little later than expected! It all adds to the adventure, and now I have all the time in the world to tell the stories of the latter parts of my travels; culminating in a rather dramatic end – which appears to be a common theme for this trip! For this piece we’re focusing on Brazil, a country that I was only meant to spend a couple of weeks in, but ended up returning to 3 times totalling 2 months. Much like Colombia I was drawn to the vibrancy and beauty of the country and incredible warmth, openness and generous nature of the people I met there.

I began my Brazilian adventure in the Northern City of Belém, meeting with Colonel Oliviera of the military fire brigade to discuss the fires in the Amazon rainforest.

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I was genuinely thrilled to see sitting on his desk, shining in all their glory – NFPA 101, 5000 and even the SFPE handbook. Finally some engineering! Intrigued about how he was pushing international best practice throughout the region I became a little sidetracked discussing the work the team had been conducting on the Kiss nightclub fire. It was a repeat of the all too familiar story I’d been hearing across South America: a single exit, toxic insulation/acoustic foam and a Brazilian practice of queuing to pay when you exit rather than on entry, it was a deadly mix of serious failures. The young people attempting to escape the toxic fumes were blocked from exiting because door staff, unaware of the situation inside, thought they were trying to leave without paying. 242 people died.

The public outcry from this horrific fire led to new legislation. The ‘Kiss law’ was designed to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again. However, after digging a little deeper it became clear that this was only a state law (the state of Rio Grande do Sul). The national version, although drafted, had still not been passed 7 years after the incident occurred. Having visited several bars and clubs myself, it was fairly obvious that huge steps are still needed to avoid another major disaster. And thus, the same conclusive cracks were forming, with little point dwelling on them now for fear of sounding like a broken record!

Before delving into the issue of the Amazon fires I wanted to learn more about the structure of the fire service in Brazil. Being such a big country, there were national laws and state laws, enforced locally. Many of the state laws followed the standards set in São Paulo but it seemed that each state had become fairly insular in their operation. Colonel Oliviera was pushing for a unified set of state procedures to ensure a high standard of fire safety across the whole country.

On the master-planning projects I have previously worked on the criteria for determining fire station locations was based on estimated response times. But again, the scale of Brazil is often difficult to fathom, so calculating coverage of stations from an NFPA standpoint was pretty unfeasible. States are broken into municipalities many of which are not currently provided with stations at all. As an example, Rio de Janeiro State has a total of 92 municipalities of which 58 have fire stations (63%). In comparison, Piaui which has 244 municipalities has only four (1.64%). Any expansions are economically driven and dependent on GDP and population.

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I visited the firefighting corporate head offices in São Paulo meeting with Marcelo Alexandre Cicerelli, Eduardo Martinez, Oscar Crisbo, Denilson Ostesk and the rest of the team who showed me round the facilities.

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Touring the brigade corporate head offices in São Paulo

Surprisingly, São Paulo state has 645 municipalities but only 39 with state fire stations, which explains the heavy reliance on private/civil firefighters. The volunteer system so prevalent in other parts of South America is very limited in Brazil. There was a big issue with losing trained military firefighters to the civil industry due to the pay differential. Even so, it was refreshing after being in Bolivia to see a team with decent facilities and a grasp of fire engineering principles.

The Amazon Rainforest fires.
Most of the fires occurring in the Amazon rainforest are located in Mato Grosso, Pará, Acre and Rondonia. I was curious whether firefighters were drawn from all states in Brazil to combat the recent spate of Amazon fires and was surprised to find out that this was not the case. Responsibility rested with the state where the fires were occurring with any additional support provided by the army and coordinated by the local military firefighters. However, this additional support only began this year (2019) in response to the intense media focus from around the world. And it was this I was interested in exploring.

Before I left for South America, I carried out research regarding fires in the region.  I came across the NASA website which provided free open satellite imagery and information regarding fires across the world.  The data, which went back to the year 2000 and I remember thinking ‘wow – that’s a lot of fires!’ 2010 being a particularly intense year for South America – more so than in more recent years including 2019 (at that point in time).

I talked to people about it.  ’Did you know there are hundreds of fires occurring in the Amazon rainforest right now? – acre after acre burning at this very moment!’.  More often than not this was met with mild interest before the subject was changed.  To be honest I had no pre-conceived views on the matter – perhaps this was a natural occurrence? Perhaps fires were needed in the region for regrowth?  Or perhaps this was a significant disaster and something needed to be done!  I was eager to find out more in order to develop an informed opinion.

Following this, in August 2019, Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to New York and suddenly the media sensationally announced the news regarding the fires in the Amazon rainforest, stirring up intense upset and anger across the world, particularly towards the Brazilian farmers and politicians.   Everyone was talking about it.

‘Why now?’ I asked myself.   My initial reaction was to blame the media.  Without activists and a sensationalist angle, this story was not considered relevant for large media outlets to report on. However, having reviewed news articles pre-2019 I found that throughout the years this story had been reported multiple times – so it appeared that this wave of climate awareness was needed before people took notice. Whether this is the media’s fault, or ours, I really don’t know but I was interested to understand how this media attention affected the way the fires were being fought.

The most obvious consequence of international media attention was to call in the army. How effective this has been is unclear due to their crash course training. The military fire brigade was understandably cautious about discussing opinions because military bodies typically remain impartial in matters of politics. However I wanted to understand whether they considered the media attention a help or a hindrance?

Colonel Oliviera was fighting his own battles. He was looking for regulatory reform and greater, unified standards of enforceable fire safety throughout Brazil. In order to do that he needed to work with the political bodies including the governor of the state. The media were often more of a hindrance in that process by refocusing political spotlights away from the good work he was carrying out.

What confused me was that the fires in Bolivia were getting far less attention. 7 firefighters were killed during the struggle and smoke from Bolivia was responsible for blacking out the sun in São Paulo. So why was the world media so focused on Brazil? Perhaps Bolsonaro as a villain, destroying the ‘lungs of the earth’ was a better story to tell than a struggling socialist president with an underfunded brigade.

While in La Paz, I met a Brazilian national in a hostel who had more conservative views. I discussed the fires with him and asked his opinion on climate change. He saw no issue with the farmers burning sections of the Amazon rainforest since the scale of the Amazon was so immense. The additional farm land was supporting Brazil’s economy and there was still so much of the rainforest remaining that it was not going to have a significant effect on its survival. We also discussed the hypocrisy of other countries dictating what Brazil should be doing with their land after they had destroyed their own. In his opinion it was Brazil’s right to do what they wanted with their own land. These are interesting points that I wanted to explore further.

I met with Biologist Sofia Camargo from the Federal University of Pará in Belem who helped clarify some of the issues and assumptions people made regarding the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

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Biologist Sofia Camargo showing some local wildlife

Regardless of views on climate change, she said it was important not to view the Amazon as a single entity because this assumes that all the same plant and animal life will be found evenly throughout. Instead there are multiple terrains, climates, altitudes, soil etc that create unique pockets of wildlife. So regardless of how big it is, by destroying a section it is possible that entire species are being wiped out without our knowledge. Species that could actually benefit humanity through medicinal purposes.

And who’s land is it anyway?

Many people believe that the fate of the planet rests on the Amazon rainforest being kept alive, and consider that it therefore belongs to the Earth and should be protected as such. Many Brazilians would be outraged by this, believing that it belongs to the people of Brazil. But which people? The farmers? The politicians? The corporations? What of the indigenous people who call the Amazon rainforest home? What of the tribes that are located so deep in the Jungle they have never had contact with the outside world?

I came to the Museu Paranese Emilio Goeldi to meet with the ex-president of Funai and anthropologist – Márcio Meira.

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Márcio Meira – the ex-president of Funai

Funai is an organisation with a slightly chequered start in life as its original purpose was the ‘pacification’ and integration of indigenous tribes into the modern world. Set up in 1973, its main aim was to ensure that the Amazon and its people could start contributing economically to Brazilian society.

Funai approved the construction of a highway linking Brazil to Peru directly through the Amazon rainforest, which led to the extermination of many tribes and as Márcio explained, once built, surrounding areas begin to fall to construction and farming. Many were outraged by the death and destruction caused which led to Funai being reestablished under a banner of preservation in 1987.

It began establishing and carrying out policies serving the rights of indigenous peoples and protection of land with a key focus on maintaining the isolation of indigenous groups. You may have seen the aerial photographs released by Funai in 2011 which received international media coverage. By demarcating indigenous borders, it became illegal to touch this land – whether for farming, mining, construction or building roadways.

Brazil land demarcation
Amazon land demarcations
Deforestation
Amazon deforestation

Márcio showed me a map which highlighted these demarcated lands split into four groups: Isolated, Indigenous, National Park and ‘other’. There is a huge section of the Amazon stretching across the North of Brazil – a lot of this is untouched and many isolated tribes live there.
I was told that Bolsonaro was proposing plans to build a road directly through this strip of land to connect through to Suriname. He argues that it will improve trade and it is good for Brazil and alas history is looking to repeat itself.

Márcios opinion on media was very different from that of the military brigade. Bolsonaro has been attempting to alter the constitution and remove the rights of the indigenous people in order to ‘legally’ continue with the destruction of the forest for farming, mining and to build the roadway to Suriname. The media spotlight puts immense pressure on Bolsonaro to maintain the protection of the rainforest from fire and preserve the human rights of all people in Brazil including the indigenous.

But the bright lights of the world news pivoted as we turned our focus to the Australian fires which in turn was replaced by 24/7 coverage of the Coronavirus.

Do we care that funds to Funai and other scientific research projects are being slashed? Do we care that the president of Funai has been replaced with a member of the military with close ties to Bolsonaro himself, or that fires are actively being encouraged and people carrying out illegal activities on indigenous lands are being pardoned?

It’s old news – so I guess not.

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