This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Fires raged across Arariboia in late September. As soon as one died down, another erupted. The indigenous territory in Brazil’s Maranhão state is home to thousands of Guajajara people and, deep within the thick rainforest, an uncontacted tribe.
Daniel Guajajara is one of Arariboia’s “Forest Guardians,” a team of 20 men who patrol the territory to fend off invasions of loggers, hunters, and fire. When VICE News joined the Guardians to document the front lines of Brazil’s now-infamous fire season, they had spent days on constant fire-fighting duty.
Standing on a ridge overlooking a valley where flames were ripping through trees and dark smoke filled the air, Daniel and his team assessed their strategy.
“It’s a big fire,” he said. “We’ve called the fire brigade for backup, but we don’t know if they’ll come, so we’re looking for a way to get behind the flames and stop them from moving deeper into the forest and reaching the uncontacted tribe.”
That day, the Guardians chopped their way through dense jungle to prevent a wall of fire, sometimes 12 feet high, from spreading further. Armed only with machetes and sticks, they cleared paths through the undergrowth, hoping the fire would burn out at its edges.
Fire in the Amazon goes hand in hand with deforestation. From January to the end of September, 85% more rainforest had been chopped down than in the same period last year, and as a result there had been over 70,000 fires, a 30% increase from 2018.
Many of these fires are started by people. In the region’s slash-and-burn agricultural cycle, trees are chopped down, then the trunks and undergrowth are burned to clear the land for cows. Some fires escape into virgin forest, threatening those who live there, including the Guajajara.
This year, the cycle of destruction couldn’t be ignored. In August, thick smoke choked Brazil’s capital São Paulo, darkening the midday sky and causing national, then international, outrage. World leaders got involved, offering money for firefighting efforts and publicly shaming Brazil’s new populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, for failing to act.
French President Emmanuel Macron became one of Bolsonaro’s most outspoken critics.
In an interview with VICE News, Macron called the Amazon “a treasure whose impact is huge even here in New York or in Paris.”
“Look, when we speak about rainforests, we speak about the best natural element to reduce CO2 and to neutralize part of our emissions because of the capture of CO2 by the rainforest,” Macron told VICE News. “This is not a personal issue. We need a solution agenda now.”
But for those who want to develop the Amazon, the fire wasn’t a source of outrage. For some, it even became a symbol of pride and patriotic defiance against a conservation agenda they believe is holding Brazil back.
On August 10, in the isolated and lawless ranching town of Novo Progresso, in the heart of Brazil’s Amazon, an environmental crime took place.
It’s become known as the “Day of Fire” — a series of coordinated and deliberate fires set as a demonstration of support for Bolsonaro and his repeated promises to remove rainforest protections.
When the Day of Fire reached the international press, it came to symbolize a dangerous sense of impunity among ranchers and land-grabbers that’s driving this new wave of Amazon destruction.
Across the country, Brazil’s agriculture lobby is becoming increasingly emboldened, and they have the ear of the president. Jair Bolsonaro’s administration has promised widespread changes to loosen restrictions on clearing land, and it’s taken a rhetorical hard line against NGOs working to conserve the rainforest.
Cowboys and conservatism
The Bolsonaro campaign was fueled by the “Beef, Bullets and Bibles” political caucus of rural politicians who partnered with evangelicals and law-and-order candidates to build a forceful alliance in the country’s legislature.
That change is embodied by the rise to stardom of rodeo announcer Cuiabano Lima, a close friend of the president, who took VICE News to one of his recent events. Bull-riding, lasso competitions, and country music were all on the menu — Brazil now has some of the best rodeo performers in the world.
“Agribusiness, without a doubt, is part of life for Brazilians,” Lima told VICE News. “Rio, São Paulo, the big cities, always forget that what pumps the blood is the Brazilian heartland. It’s what gives us pride in this country.”
That pride, and this “America First”-style mentality, is keenly felt in Brazil’s Amazon, where ranchers like Jair Oliveria see Bolsonaro as the man to take the country to the next phase of development. Oliveira owns 3,000 head of cattle and ranches on land that was forest just 15 years ago.
Despite recent analysis showing at least 172,000 soccer fields of forest were cleared and burned in 2019, Oliveira agrees with Brazil’s president that the fires are being exaggerated.
“This is political — to make something that’s international, to make problems for this president. The president is a very nice president for everybody. He wants to help everybody.”
For world leaders urging Brazil to take stronger action on the Amazon to help fight climate change, Oliveira had this message: “If the climate changes, it’s not the responsibility of Brazil; it’s the whole world. If Macron wants to me to keep my forest, just pay me to keep it.”
Cover: A Guajajara man in Arariboia. Photo by Daniel Vergara.