Brazil’s army put in charge offighting Amazon fires
18 March 2003
BRASILIA, Brazil In a sign of growing concern over spreadingforest fires in Brazil’s northern Amazon jungle, the army has taken command offighting the fires, environmental authorities said Monday. As the fires entered the reserve of the Yanomami Indians, one of the world’slast hunter-gatherer tribes, the army was put in charge due to “its greateroperational capabilities,” said Marcos Barros, head of the government’sIbama environmental agency. Fires are common this time of year in the Amazon state of Roraima, as poorfarmers burn their land before sowing. But with extremely dry weather and hotwinds blowing across the region’s jungle and savanna, the fires have gotten outof control this year. In the last four days, satellites have detected nearly 686 hot spots acrossRoraima most of which are believed to be fires in anarea the size of Britain. There were just more than 300 hot spots asof Friday. The biggest city in the area, Roraima’s provincial capital Boa Vista,had haze from the fires hanging over it Monday. The army’s involvement in such operations has been rare in Brazil since the endof two decades of military rule in 1985. The decision to send more firefighters came as strong winds pushed the firesdeeper into the forest reserve of the Yanomami Indians, which the fires reachedat the end of last week. The Yanomami, one of the world’s only true Neolithic tribes, had lived innear-total isolation for about 2,000 years until the late 1970s, when Brazil’smilitary government conducted surveys in the area. An estimated 26,000 stilllive in the jungles. “We have created a single command, with the Brazilian army in Roraimaheading it,” Barros said from the Amazon state. Barros said up to 200 specialist firefighters would be streaming into Roraima incoming days, bringing the total number of personnel to about 850, up from 500this time last week. He said the government would free up at least 2 millionreais (US$600,000) to finance the fight. Barros flew over the area Monday together with Environment Minister Marina Silvato evaluate the damage. The fires in the northern Amazon where the tropical forest islarger than western Europe sparked such a tough response by thegovernment due to concerns that it could repeat a 1998 blaze that caused massiveenvironmental damage. The Amazon is home to up to 30 percent of the world’sanimal and plant life. Authorities hope the first downpours of the rainy season will come in the nexttwo weeks, but if they don’t, some observers warn the situation could becomeworse than in 1998. Forecasts of rain also act as a double-edged sword, as they prompt farmers toburn their land quickly to prepare it for sowing, heightening the danger offires burning out of control.