Brazil Jails Firefighters, Accuses NGOs of Starting Fires

Hey, have you heard the one about the NGOs, the volunteer firefighters and the movie star who torched the Amazon forest so the government would get the blame?

Crazy, right? In normal times this would be the stuff of novelas, Brazil's beloved soap operas, and everybody would consider it a horrible joke.  

Except that Brazilian President Bolsonaro, his Environment Minister Ricardo Salles (who plans to be with us here at COP25 for the whole two weeks), and some of their allies in regional police forces and courts, as well as their massive and suggestible social media following, appear to take it very seriously. And when a crowd of land-grabbers, ranchers, illegal miners and loggers considers you an enemy in Brazil, the results can be deadly.

But to explore the dark humor of the story, we have to go back to Bolsonaro’s election campaign. Then, he promised to "put an end to all kinds of activism" while stopping the unreasonable persecution of the aforementioned land-grabbers and illegal miners and other poor hard-working fellows who just wanted to replace rainforests with soybean and cattle - and for whom the forest protection laws were a nuisance.

Jump ahead to August, when Bolsonaro fans throughout the Amazon were gleefully lighting fires to celebrate their good luck. But nowhere more prolifically than in the Western Para town of Novo Progresso, where members of a WhatsApp group that included many ranchers and a police chief (!) planned a “day of fire” to help do away with large swathes of that annoying Amazon rainforest.

Then when the backlash within Brazil and around the world made the fires an embarrassment and threatened exports of soybean, beef and timber, President Bolsonaro helpfully suggested he had information that NGOs were lighting the fires.

This accusation was a big hit in pro-Bolsonaro social media circles, but was met with widespread ridicule everywhere else. 

Cut to Tuesday, November 26, when Brazil woke up to the news that 4 members of a youth fire brigade in the Amazonian town of Alter do Chão had been arrested, accused of lighting forest fires to profit from donations to extinguish them. Other NGOs were implicated, and one highly respected NGO in the same region had their computers and key documents confiscated by heavily armed policemen.

It seems the local police force, in the same district in the west of the State of Para as the above mentioned chief of police who participated in the Day of Fire discussions, had been wire-tapping the fire brigade members for months. This vast trove yielded some conversations which, taken out of context and interpreted with a good dose of creativity, seemed to suggest that the firefighters were predicting when fires would take place. The police conveniently overlooked the fact that the existence of fires in the dry season in the Amazon is quite predictable, and laid charges of setting fires.

They arrested the 4 firefighters at gunpoint, questioned them and imprisoned them for days, and even made an offer for free haircuts they couldn’t refuse. Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for all reasonable observers, including Brazilian and international media, to realize this was a baseless accusation.

When the state Governor Helder Barbalho (who will be in Madrid next week seeking international funds) realised his police force was putting him in an untenable position, he changed the command of the investigations, and the firefighters were released the next day. No evidence to support the charges of setting fires has been produced, and other ongoing investigations have pointed to land-grabbers and real estate speculators as the main suspects for the fires.

As late as Friday 29 November, President Bolsonaro and his Congressman son Eduardo were continuing to promote lies against the firefighters, Brazilian NGOs, and (we kid you not) actor Leonardo DiCaprio. 

It seems clear that no matter what the outcome of the investigation, Bolsonaro, Salles and their allies will continue to feed their social media channels with an endless stream of fake news about the case.

Meanwhile, no activist is safe in Brazil anymore. There is reason to believe the quickly escalating authoritarianism in the country has picked environmentalists as its newest target, and the crackdown on the firefighters may have been only the first in a long series.

This is no laughing matter.

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