They say they’re firefighters. Police say they’re arsonists. The battle for truth reaches the Amazon.

15 March 2020

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BRAZIL – João Romano, 27, emerged from his treehouse, a structure without walls powered by solar energy. Shirtless and bearded, he looked down at the officers, confused. The leader of a volunteer fire brigade allied with authorities and nongovernmental organizations, he couldn’t imagine why they’d come.

As the Amazon rainforest burned last autumn, and deforestation rates surged to peaks unseen in a decade, Romano’s brigade was a rare shard of hope, battling the blazes into submission beside the authorities. The city council applauded them. The state governor thanked them. They became heroes.

Now, the police were arresting Romano on a charge that stunned him: arson. They accused him of lighting the fires to raise money, as part of a web of international collusion that encompassed not only local organizations, but also the influential World Wildlife Fund and even actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

The left said the case was rigged.

The right said it wasn’t.

The information wars, the battle of competing narratives that is increasingly shaping global affairs and corroding a common consensus on truth, have reached the Amazon rainforest. As deforestation rises under President Jair Bolsonaro, the forces of development and the protectors of the rainforest are fighting by claim and counterclaim, anecdote and hashtag, over the future of the Amazon.

“Everything is being interpreted in the worst way, as deliberate and malicious,” said Daniel Nepstad, an environmental scientist who studies the Amazon. “The tendency is to demonize.”

Does the right-wing Bolsonaro want to develop the Amazon — or destroy it? Will he enrich indigenous communities — or hasten their demise? Are international environmentalists safeguarding Brazil — or holding it back?

And, most urgently, who’s lighting the fires?

Those who want to conserve the forest blamed Bolsonaro. His pro-development rhetoric, they say, has emboldened farmers, ranchers and land grabbers to invade and burn protected lands for development. Those who want to monetize the Amazon, meanwhile, said there wasn’t anything unusual about the fires. And if there was? It was the fault of the left.

At the height of the international drama last year, Bolsonaro took it one step further, alleging without evidence that NGOs were lighting the fires to make him look bad. Their positioning appeared “strategic,” he said. “Everything indicates that people went there to film and then to set the fires.”

All the proof he needed then appeared. Four volunteer firefighters with ties to NGOs — including Romano — were arrested in Alter do Chao. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a federal congressman, tweeted: “NGOs BURN THE AMAZON.” A message shot across WhatsApp: “CONFIRMED: BOLSONARO WAS RIGHT.” Claims of links to NGOs and “Titantic Leo” went viral.

Romano’s image was now everywhere. But this time, when people saw him, they no longer saw a hero. They saw a villain.

Where fire meets forest

When Romano first saw Alter do Chao, it was like a mirage in the forest, miles of white sand serpentining along the translucent Tapajós River. Romano felt a release: The pressure to live in his hometown of Sao Paulo, the pressure to fit in, the pressure too make money — all of it fell away.

Living here was like mainlining nature. All around were people like him. They had come for something different. Romano met his wife, moved into a treehouse, had a child and settled into a comfortable existence perturbed only by a mounting awareness of the community’s tension points.

The region had been built by migrants who had imbued it with the spirit of the frontier, rugged and conservative. That culture — always pushing to expand, always looking to tame the wilderness — grated against that of the newcomers, who wanted to protect the forest. NGOs funded by foreigners were seen as compromised. Anger grew against the hippies.

“They’re people who don’t shower and smell bad,” one blogger wrote in a post titled, “Hippies Infest Alter do Chao.” A study on the “hippie situation” found 90 percent of tourists disliked them.

A bus ride turned into mad confusion in 2018 when “hippie brothers” took out a knife to either threaten people, according to bus passengers, or fix a window, police concluded.

“I don’t go there anymore,” said Marcio Cezaroto, a prominent local supporter of Bolsonaro in the nearby city of Santarem. “They are damaging the community, this community.”

And then, as tension gave way to hostility, Alter do Chao began to burn. The woods were being razed by squatters and land grabbers looking to build. Gunfire echoed in the trees — warnings to stay away. “Practically every day there are people . . . working in the area to degrade it, open it up, construct homes and parcel out lots,” state prosecutors reported.

“The whole world wants a condominium in Alter do Chao,” said Joselma de Sousa Maciel, a local environmental officer.

Romano hadn’t come to these woods to watch them burn. With friends, he launched a volunteer brigade — Alter do Chao’s first firefighting department — hoping to forge something professional and permanent. They started an NGO and began fundraising on Instagram. Donations rolled in — and the World Wildlife Fund contributed nearly $16,000.

Every day seemed to bring more fires — some of them devastating — but Romano began to perceive something new and hopeful. Here were longtime residents and newcomers working together, with little in common beyond the goal of stopping the fires. People shared meals. Friends were made. Tensions seemed to ease.

Then it was 6 a.m. one November morning, and the police were coming for Romano and three other firefighters. Another battle for truth was underway.

‘We’re going to kill you’

Miguel Oliveira was dubious. Red-faced and gray-haired, he’d been a local reporter here for more than two decades, hosting a daily radio show and running a news site. But he’d never seen a case like this one.

Police accused the firefighters of pantomiming bravery against fires they had lit themselves. One of their benefactors was the World Wildlife Fund, a Bolsonaro antagonist. And one of its large donors, police said, was Leonardo DiCaprio, who’d also condemned the Amazon fires.

The claims were extraordinary. But was there proof to match? Oliveira started digging, amassing the entire police investigative file, which The Washington Post also obtained and reviewed.

What Oliveira found stunned him. Hundreds of pages, filled with little more than speculation: local residents complaining that the brigade seemed more interested in photography than fighting fires. Others alleging the brigade’s poor technique had exacerbated the fires. Two people said a firefighter smelled like gasoline. Others asked: Wasn’t it suspicious they were often first to the fires? Oliveira could find no concrete evidence against the brigade.

Investigating police declined interview requests by The Post.

More scrutiny followed. DiCaprio denied the allegations. Witnesses interviewed by police said their words had been mischaracterized. Federal prosecutors said “nothing pointed to the participation of the firefighters or NGOs.” The state governor dismissed the case’s lead police officer. The presiding judge ordered the firefighters released. Local prosecutors declined to move forward with the case until police gathered more evidence.

“The [police] version is unlikely, unbelievable, crazy,” Oliveira wrote, a “farce.” A simpler story made far more sense: A few idealistic outsiders, wanting to help, had tried to start a fire brigade.

But this wasn’t the version his listeners and readers, many of whom supported Bolsonaro, had come to believe. Soon came the insults and threats.

“Liar,” said one. “Communist.”

“We’re going to kill you.”

Even for a journalist inured to abuse, the response was disturbing. He feared Brazil had grown “psychologically diseased.” Nothing would break this fever of polarization, not even facts. It wouldn’t matter if the firefighters were innocent. They would always be guilty.

A sense of purpose, lost

“Who’s there?” Romano asked the darkness.

A rustling had sounded at the base of the stairs. Romano bolted upward. It was his second night back in Alter do Chao, after two months in Sao Paulo, and he suddenly realized that he was his family’s only defense. He ran toward the sound. “Who’s there?” he called again. Relief washed over him when he saw it was a friend.

Romano understands the risk he has assumed in returning to Alter do Chao. The Amazon remains a violent, largely lawless region, and the threats have been constant. One firefighter’s house was broken into. All fled for Sao Paulo.

“It’s done,” said Marcelo Aron Cwerner. “I want to follow a different path.”

“I was betrayed there,” said Daniel Gutierrez Govino. “It’s not a place for us anymore.”

But Romano missed the trees, the rivers, the feeling he could breathe. This community was his, too, where he wanted to raise his family. But life here scares him. He hasn’t been cleared of charges, and police are still investigating him. His face and name have been seen all over the country. Many people believe what he called lies.

“The NGOs were involved in the fires,” said Jhaimeson de Almeida Sousa, 26. “Bolsonaro knew it all, but the media was hiding it.”

“They were lighting the fires to take pictures and make money,” said Josiele Branco, 31. “They looked like hippies, with ripped clothing, but I know they had money.”

Romano said he was broke then and he’s broke now. He let out a sigh. He should have felt relaxed, but his thoughts returned to the fire brigade. Nothing in his life had ever given him such a sense of purpose.

The problem of fire wasn’t going away. Another section of the forest nearby had just been clandestinely cleared. Land grabbers were invading with impunity. The next fire season was only months away.

But he was done. The next time Alter do Chao burned, it would have to do without him.

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