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Volunteers Are Fighting Brazil's Devastating Fires Because the Government Won't

"We don't wait for the government. We just do our job."

by Emilee Gilpin
28 February 2020, 10:20am

A brigadista takes a break from fighting flames in Chapada Diamantina. Photo by Açony Santos

This article originally appeared on VICE CA.

Esmeraldo Alves Sena Júnior always has fire on the back of his mind. During the dry season in Chapada Diamantina National Park in northeast Brazil, from September to December, he wakes up every morning and automatically surveys the sky. If he sees smoke, he’ll spring out of bed, pack his bag with the essentials—a few days’ worth of water and food, some basic flame-resistant clothing, goggles, and massive shovels and pumps. He’ll then shoot a message on WhatsApp, letting others know he’s heading out later that afternoon. Typically, he’s joined by four to five others at first, often travelling by foot to get to areas not accessible by car, to go and fight the “flaming dragons.”

Sena, 37, is a tour guide by day, and a brigadista, a volunteer firefighter who wages wars against the park’s fires, by night. He, along with other men and a handful of women, has learned to fight fires in a region and on terrain he knows intimately, putting his life at risk for no money, little recognition, and even less government support.

Brigadistas take a break after putting out a fire, waiting to see whether it will start up again. Photo by Açony Santos
Brigadistas take a break after putting out a fire, waiting to see whether it will start up again. Photo by Açony Santos

Mostly local tour guides, the brigadistas are not trained to fight fires; they spend the majority of their time leading outsiders on trails to some of the biggest and most breathtaking waterfalls in Brazil.

At 1,520 square kilometres, Chapada Diamantina National Park is roughly double the size of New York City. Search #ChapadaDiamantina on Instagram or Facebook and you’ll get a glimpse of mountains and canyons, expansive lands, rocky savannah, and abundant waterfalls and caves that attract tourists from around the world. Sena lives in Lençóis, the “capital of the Chapada” on the park’s northeastern edge that attracts the most tourists to the park.

Many tourists insist on having their photos taken with the pristine landscapes, Sena said, but they don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes, or what it takes to preserve it.

In dry seasons, brigadistas can be out fighting fires for four or five days at a time, returning home to rest a few days before taking on another shift. But in record dry years, like 2008, 2009, and 2015, they might stay out for weeks and even months, putting their paid work on hold.

Sena, or Mel as he’s known locally, is president of Brigada Voluntária de Lençóis, a volunteer firefighter association in Lençóis founded by his father 27 years ago. With a population of 11,445, everyone in the old diamond-mining town knows everyone and everyone knows everyone’s business.

Though the fires haven’t been as bad in recent years due to more rainfall throughout the year, if it weren’t for the brigadistas dedicating their time, energy, and resources year-round to preserving and protecting the park, it would all burn down, Sena said.

Mel Alves Sena’s brother Cinho points to a line of fire in December 2015 that he ended up fighting the entire night. Photo by Açony Santos
Mel Alves Sena’s brother Cinho points to a line of fire in December 2015 that he ended up fighting the entire night. Photo by Açony Santos

In September 2015, fires in the park were ablaze for about three weeks before the state government stepped in, consuming large areas that eventually affected about half of the park. In the weeks and months that followed, the brigadistas spent long hours on the gritty trails, carrying old equipment and wearing fire-resistant clothing (much of it donated or accessed through local government programs) going without food for hours and sometimes without water, to prevent the fires from burning everything they knew and depended on for their livelihood.

When the government eventually responded, it sent a helicopter to disperse water and to drop off and pick up firefighters brought in from Salvador, the nearest big city. But the brigadistas usually made their way back on foot, Sena said.

A brigadista looks on as a government-funded helicopter drops a bag of water on the active flames in January 2016. Photo by Açony Santos
A brigadista looks on as a government-funded helicopter drops a bag of water on the active flames in January 2016. Photo by Açony Santos

“We know these trails. We have resilience,” he said. “If someone is going back alone, you know they’re good.”

Many of the brigadistas’ parents worked in gold and diamond mining in Chapada Diamantina (which translates to Diamond Plate), including Sena’s father. Although Chapada Diamantina became protected as a national park in 1985, it was heavily deforested and mined up until then and is still recuperating.

Sena’s parents moved to Lençóis in search of work, and his father became a garimpeiro (miner), while his mother worked in agriculture. Sena said his father spent more time in the wild than the town, even delivering one of his five children on one of the most famous trails. All five kids are tour guides and brigadistas.

“He taught us how to care for the environment, work that has no end,” Sena told me from the humble office in Lençóis. “The Chapada has suffered enough, because of the gold mining, the diamond mining. The whole park has been worked, exploited... and then there’s the impact of the fires.”

Sena says it’s the job of the brigadistas to “change water into wine,” to transform the culture of destruction during their parents’ eras into one of preservation for their children (he has three daughters) and generations to come.

Having spent his entire life as a tour guide, and later as a brigadista, Sena has seen people, mainly tourists, get seriously hurt, and even die. “When we’re out in the jungle, fighting flames or not, there are cobras everywhere. There’s a high chance for someone to get hurt; there are a lot of things that could go wrong,” he said.

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Mel Alves Sena at the volunteer firefighting brigade office in Lençóis founded by his dad. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Sena said there haven’t been any fatalities among the brigadistas, although he admitted they don’t know yet the long-term effects of smoke inhalation.

Despite the risks, Sena has no intention of quitting. “I was born here. I grew up here, I’ll die here,” he said.

Cutting the head off the dragon

Açony Santos grew up in Lençóis as well, but he left for a number of years for school in São Paulo where he studied graphic design. He is also a photographer—many of the stunning photos in this story are his.

Açony Santos. Photo by Emilee Gilpin
Açony Santos, a brigadista, said in recent years the fires have been particularly bad. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Santos returned home in 2015, when the fires were particularly bad. “2015 was a memorable year for us, because it took the government so long to respond,” Santos said.

It was also the year the brigadistas learned how to “cut the head off the dragon,” Sena said.

The fires in the Chapada run in a triangle. If you can control the tip of the triangle, you can disperse your groups and tackle one line at a time, Sena explained. It was a technique they learned through experience.

Brigadistas battle the dragon one night in November 2015. Photo by Açony Santos
Brigadistas battle the dragon one night in November 2015. Photo by Açony Santos

If and when the bombeiros, the city firefighters, get flown in from Salvador or other big cities nearby, they typically don’t know much about the wild terrain. They depend on the brigadistas to show them where to go, how to handle venomous cobras, and how to work with the kinds of fires that start in high mountain, thick jungle, or rugged bush.

The bombeiros also don’t know much about a quality special to the brigadistas: night combat.

“Here, we fight fire at night,” Santos said. “At night, you have a better chance to control the fire because the temperature is lower.”

Brigadistas from the Chapada became especially well known a few months ago when they were called into help put out fires in the Amazon, teaching military officers and government agencies their hard-earned bush techniques—even putting out 10 kilometres of fire in one night, one brigadista told me.

Brigadistas take a break from fighting fires to eat food volunteers have provided them. Photo by Açony Santos
Brigadistas take a break from fighting fires to eat food volunteers have provided them. Photo by Açony Santos

The brigadistas said they couldn’t do their work without the support of the community. When the fires were at their worst, the entire community in Lençóis mobilized to help, and people would drop off fruits, veggies and other items “for the brigadistas.”

Marta Érica Oliveira Ferrera is said to be a “warrior” at the heart of the community operation. “She works 24 hours when the fires are raging,” Santos said. “She cooks, brings out food, does administration work, organizes meetings and groups.”

Marta Ferrera speaks with a helicopter crew in November 2015. She has a fear of heights, she said, and went in the helicopter once, but prefers to stay on the ground. Photo by Açony Santos
Marta Ferrera speaks with a helicopter crew in November 2015. She has a fear of heights, she said, and went in the helicopter once, but prefers to stay on the ground. Photo by Açony Santos

When she’s not helping the brigadistas, she’s running her restaurant Feijão da Chapa, and has just started a volunteer project to provide food and homes for dozens of stray dogs.

“I’m always for life,” Ferrera said, when I stopped by her restaurant, open only on Sundays.

She was raised in a family that placed a lot of emphasis on taking care of others. “I learned that we can’t wait for someone else to make a change. We have a personal obligation to help,” she said.

Volunteers work in Ferrera’s kitchen preparing meals for the brigadistas. Photo by Aćony Santos
Volunteers work in Ferrera’s kitchen preparing meals for the brigadistas. Photo by Aćony Santos

It’s not always easy, she admitted—especially being a woman. “But because of our strength, courage, and determination, things are moving for us too. We are gaining more respect,” she said.

“I have the maximum respect for Marta,” Sena said. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without her, and many others.”

Last year, the Amazon wildfires that burned for weeks on end raised international alarm. Both Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Sales downplayed the role of human-caused climate change and deforestation, and instead fired the former director of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), criticizing the accuracy of the institute’s data that stressed how a dramatic increase in deforestation led to unprecedented fires in the Amazon.

In the current political climate, the brigadistas are resigned. “Brazil is a bank of natural resources, and today we have a government that wants to sell everything,” Santos said. “The fires in the Amazon were mostly criminal, and the government isn’t going after the people that started them, because they were used to make room to plant soy and expand agricultural business.”

Both Açony and Sena pointed toward funding cuts in environmental preservation since Bolsonaro became president last year. He has also been widely criticized for his comments about “integrating” Indigenous communities with the rest of the population, and for recently putting a former evangelical missionary in charge of working with isolated tribes.

Sena would also like to see more economic support for the brigadistas across Chapada Diamantina. While Sena and Ferrera both said the brigadistas have a good relationship with Lençóis, they need support from all levels of government. (Lençóis offficials did not respond to a request for an interview.) Every town has their own group, their own front line, their own stories. With more support, they could invest time and energy into prevention, he said, using a stronger system of communication, like radio and drones, to survey the mountain range which in most spots doesn’t get a signal.

'The bombeiros look out at the land and see the smoke, they see the devastation, or they see the beauty of it all, and they cry'

“Bolsonaro is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Sena said. “The government makes promises, but we’re used to them not showing up. We don’t wait for the government; we just do our job,” he said.

But why? Why fight so hard for so long, breathing in smoke and putting their lives at risk, for no money?

A brigadista surveys a razed area still smoking in the park in January 2016. Photo by Açony Santos
A brigadista surveys a razed area still smoking in the park in January 2016. Photo by Açony Santos

Dancing with the dragon is a game, Sena said. The fire brings it all out of you—moments of rage, fear, brotherhood, and unspeakable joy.

“I do it because I love the land,” Sena said. “I love to live in a clean, green, preserved place, like anyone else would. It’s easy to destroy; it’s fast. We see that with the fires.”

He doesn’t care about not being paid. His payment is being able to take a bath in a preserved pool of water on a hot day, he said. And he wants his daughters to know the joy, freedom, and power of the land.

Not everyone understands this connection, he said. Not everyone has “heard the voice of the waterfall,” but some get it.

Sometimes, when the bombeiros, who are accustomed to working a steady 9-5, come out to meet the brigadistas, there’s a culture clash. It has been hard at times, Sena admitted, to see people come in and do a job they’re paid for and leave behind without understanding or experiencing the immense pressure felt by the brigadistas who are closely connected to the land.

But some of them get it, Sena said.

“We respect some of them, because they feel it. They look out at the land and see the smoke, they see the devastation, or they see the beauty of it all, and they cry,” he said. “I tell them, isn’t it fucked, man? Isn’t it fucked? And they cry for the land.”

Emilee Gilpin is a Michif (Cree-Métis) nomad and a freelance journalist currently living and working in Bahia, Brazil. She’s passionate about covering community stories of strength and self-determination. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.

Follow Açony Santos on Instagram.

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