Global coronavirus deaths top half a million

By Jane Wardell and Cate Cadell

SYDNEY/BEIJING (Reuters) – The death toll from COVID-19 surpassed half a million people on Sunday, according to a Reuters tally, a grim milestone for the global pandemic that seems to be resurgent in some countries even as other regions are still grappling with the first wave.

The respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus has been particularly dangerous for the elderly, although other adults and children are also among the 501,000 fatalities and 10.1 million reported cases.

While the overall rate of death has flattened in recent weeks, health experts have expressed concerns about record numbers of new cases in countries like the United States, India and Brazil, as well as new outbreaks in parts of Asia.

More than 4,700 people are dying every 24 hours from COVID-19-linked illness, according to Reuters calculations based on an average from June 1 to 27.

That equates to 196 people per hour, or one person every 18 seconds.

About one-quarter of all the deaths so far have been in the United States, the Reuters data shows. The recent surge in cases has been most pronounced in a handful of Southern and Western states that reopened earlier and more aggressively. U.S. officials on Sunday reported around 44,700 new cases and 508 additional deaths.

Case numbers are also growing swiftly in Latin America, on Sunday surpassing those diagnosed in Europe, making the region the second most affected by the pandemic, after North America.

On the other side of the world, Australian officials were considering reimposing social distancing measures in some regions on Monday after reporting the biggest one-day rise in infections in more than two months.

The first recorded death from the new virus was on Jan. 9, a 61-year-old man from the Chinese city of Wuhan who was a regular shopper at a wet market that has been identified as the source of the outbreak.

In just five months, the COVID-19 death toll has overtaken the number of people who die annually from malaria, one of the most deadly infectious diseases.

The death rate averages out to 78,000 per month, compared with 64,000 AIDS-related deaths and 36,000 malaria deaths, according to 2018 figures from the World Health Organization.

CHANGING BURIAL RITES

The high number of deaths has led to changes to traditional and religious burial rites around the world, with morgues and funeral businesses overwhelmed and loved ones often barred from bidding farewell in person.

In Israel, the custom of washing the bodies of Muslim deceased is not permitted, and instead of being shrouded in cloth, they must be wrapped in a plastic body bag. The Jewish tradition of Shiva where people go to the home of mourning relatives for seven days has also been disrupted.

In Italy, Catholics have been buried without funerals or a blessing from a priest. In New York, city crematories were at one point working overtime, burning bodies into the night as officials scouted for temporary interment sites.

In Iraq, former militiamen have dropped their guns to instead dig graves for coronavirus victims at a specially created cemetery. They have learned how to conduct Christian, as well as Muslim, burials.

ELDERLY AT RISK

Public health experts are looking at how demographics affect the death rates in different regions. Some European countries with older populations have reported higher fatality rates, for instance.

An April report by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control looked at more than 300,000 cases in 20 countries and found that about 46% of all fatalities were over the age of 80.

In Indonesia, hundreds of children are believed to have died, a development health officials have attributed to malnutrition, anemia and inadequate child health facilities.

Health experts caution that the official data likely does not tell the full story, with many believing that both cases and deaths have likely been under reported in some countries.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell in Sydney and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Daniel Wallis)

Bolsonaro threatens WHO exit as COVID-19 kills ‘a Brazilian per minute’

By Lisandra Paraguassu and Ricardo Brito

BRASILIA (Reuters) – President Jair Bolsonaro threatened on Friday to pull Brazil out of the World Health Organization after the U.N. agency warned Latin American governments about the risk of lifting lockdowns before slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus throughout the region.

A new Brazilian record for daily COVID-19 fatalities pushed the county’s death toll past that of Italy late on Thursday, but Bolsonaro continues to argue for quickly lifting state isolation orders, arguing that the economic costs outweigh public health risks.

Latin America’s most populous nations, Brazil and Mexico, are seeing the highest rates of new infections, though the pandemic is also gathering pace in countries such as Peru, Colombia, Chile and Bolivia.

Overall, more than 1.1 million Latin Americans have been infected. While most leaders have taken the pandemic more seriously than Bolsonaro, some politicians that backed strict lockdowns in March and April are pushing to open economies back up as hunger and poverty grow.

In an editorial running the length of newspaper Folha de S.Paulo’s front page, the Brazilian daily highlighted that just 100 days had passed since Bolsonaro described the virus now “killing a Brazilian per minute” as “a little flu.”

“While you were reading this, another Brazilian died from the coronavirus,” the newspaper said.

Brazil’s Health Ministry reported late on Thursday that confirmed cases in the country had climbed past 600,000 and 1,437 deaths had been registered within 24 hours, the third consecutive daily record.

Brazil reported another 1,005 deaths Friday night, while Mexico reported 625 additional deaths.

With more than 35,000 lives lost, the pandemic has killed more people in Brazil than anywhere outside of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Asked about efforts to loosen social distancing orders in Brazil despite rising daily death rates and diagnoses, World Health Organization (WHO) spokeswoman Margaret Harris said a key criteria for lifting lockdowns was slowing transmission.

“The epidemic, the outbreak, in Latin America is deeply, deeply concerning,” she told a news conference in Geneva. Among six key criteria for easing quarantines, she said, “one of them is ideally having your transmission declining.”

In comments to journalists later Friday, Bolsonaro said Brazil will consider leaving the WHO unless it ceases to be a “partisan political organization.”

President Donald Trump, an ideological ally of Bolsonaro, said last month that the United States would end its own relationship with the WHO, accusing it of becoming a puppet of China, where the coronavirus first emerged.

Bolsonaro’s dismissal of the coronavirus risks to public health and efforts to lift state quarantines have drawn criticism from across the political spectrum in Brazil, where some accuse him of using the crisis to undermine democratic institutions.

But many of those critics are divided about the safety and effectiveness of anti-government demonstrations in the middle of a pandemic, especially after one small protest was met with an overwhelming show of police force last weekend.

Alfonso Vallejos ParĂ¡s, an epidemiologist and professor of public health at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said infections are high in Latin America as the virus was slow to gain a foothold in the region.

“It is hard to estimate when the pace of infection will come down,” he said.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Ricardo Brito; Additional reporting by Gabriela Mello in Sao Paulo, Gram Slattery and Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro and Adriana Barrera in Mexico City; Editing by Brad Haynes, Rosalba O’Brien and Leslie Adler)

Mexico overtakes U.S. coronavirus daily deaths, sets records

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico overtook the United States in daily reported deaths from the novel coronavirus for the first time on Wednesday, with the health ministry registering a record 1,092 fatalities it attributed to improved documenting of the pandemic.

Latin American has emerged in recent weeks as a major center for coronavirus. Brazil, where the virus has hit hardest in the region, also reported a record number of deaths on Wednesday.

The Mexican government had previously predicted the pandemic would peak in early May and under U.S. pressure has begun reopening its vast auto industry, which underpins billions of dollars of business through cross-border supply chains.

However, plans to further relax social distancing measures this week were put on hold in recognition of the fact that infections had not yet begun coming down.

Wednesday saw a record 3,912 new infections, with the number of daily deaths more than twice the previous record of 501.

The total number of known cases in Latin America’s second-largest economy is now 101,238 and its tally of deaths is 11,729, making it the seventh country with most deaths from the virus, according to the John Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell attributed the sharp jump in numbers to a new mortality committee established by the Mexico City government to better identify which deaths in the capital were caused by the virus.

“Over the past 20 or 25 days, we have had various cases that were slowly passed on to the registry, for various reasons,” he said. “A technical committee has specifically been carrying out complementary methods.”

The committee was established after growing criticism that Mexico’s very limited testing rate meant most cases and deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, were not being registered. A Reuters investigation concluded that fatalities could be 2.5 times higher than reported.

Mexico’s government has previously admitted the real number of fatalities was higher than the official count.

It was not clear if the inclusion of more deaths registered by the Mexico City committee would push daily numbers higher in future.

Mexico, with just over a third of the population of the United States, is at an earlier stage of the pandemic curve than its neighbor and the government has acknowledged that deaths could eventually surpass 30,000.

U.S. daily reported deaths were 1,045 on Wednesday, government data showed.

(Reporting by Mexico City Newsroom; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Peter Cooney)

Brazil launches military operations in the Amazon rain forest

By Jake Spring

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil launched a military deployment to protect the Amazon rainforest on Monday, Vice President Hamilton Mourao said, in response to surging deforestation this year with the high season for forest fires still approaching.

The military – along with environmental authorities, police and other government agencies – began with an operation to stop illegal environmental destruction in a national forest in the state of Rondonia near the Bolivian border, Mourao said at a press conference alongside other government ministers.

Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva said authorities are establishing bases of operation in three Amazon cities, with 3,800 troops mobilized to begin raids against illegal logging and other crimes, with initial operational costs of 60 million reais ($10.32 million).

Government data released on Friday showed that deforestation rose 55% in the first four months of the year, compared to the same period a year ago, to 1,202 square kilometers (464 square miles). That comes on top of last year’s destruction rising to an 11-year high, provoking international outcry that not enough was being done to protect the world’s largest rainforest.

President Jair Bolsonaro issued a decree last week deploying the military to the region, repeating a move he made last year to send in the armed forces after forest fires and deforestation surged. This year troops are being sent in three months earlier than in 2019.

($1 = 5.8160 reais)

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Sandra Maler and Aurora Ellis)

Germany ‘heading for epidemic’ as virus spreads faster outside China

By David Stanway and Josh Smith

SHANGHAI/SEOUL (Reuters) – Germany said on Wednesday that it was heading for a coronavirus epidemic and could no longer trace all cases, as the number of new infections inside China – the source of the outbreak – was for the first time overtaken by those elsewhere.

Asia reported hundreds of new cases, Brazil confirmed Latin America’s first infection and the new disease – COVID-19 – also hit Pakistan, Greece and Algeria. Global food conglomerate Nestle suspended all business travel until March 15.

Stock markets across the world lost $3.3 trillion of value in four days of trading, as measured by the MSCI all-country index, but on Wednesday Wall Street led something of a rebound.

U.S. health authorities, managing 59 cases so far, have said a global pandemic is likely, but President Donald Trump accused two cable TV channels that frequently criticise him of “doing everything possible to make (the coronavirus) look as bad as possible, including panicking markets”.

The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.

While radical quarantining measures have helped to slow the rate of transmission in China, elsewhere it is accelerating.

Germany, which has around 20 cases, said it was already impossible to trace all chains of infection, and Health Minister Jens Spahn urged regional authorities, hospitals and employers to review their pandemic planning.

“Large numbers of people have had contact with the patients, and that is a big change to the 16 patients we had until now where the chain could be traced back to the origin in China,” he said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had also spoken on Tuesday of a nascent pandemic. “It’s not a question of ‘if’. It’s a question of ‘when’ and how many people will be infected,” said its principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat.

‘PANDEMIC’ – OR NOT?

The World Health Organization (WHO) said China had reported 411 new cases on Tuesday – against the 427 logged in 37 other countries.

However, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus advised diplomats in Geneva on Wednesday against speaking of a pandemic.

“Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralysing systems,” he said.

“It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true.”

Dr Bruce Aylward, head of a joint WHO-Chinese mission on the outbreak, told reporters on his return to Geneva:

“Think the virus is going to show up tomorrow. If you don’t think that way, you’re not going to be ready … This a rapidly escalating epidemic in different places that we have got to tackle super-fast to prevent a pandemic.”

Trump tweeted that he would attend a briefing on Wednesday. But the White House denied a report by the Politico outlet that it was considering appointing a “coronavirus czar”.

The WHO says the outbreak peaked in China around Feb. 2, after measures that included isolating Hubei province.

China’s National Health Commission reported 406 new infections on Wednesday, down from 508 a day earlier and bringing the total confirmed cases in mainland China to 78,064. Its death toll rose by 52 to 2,715.

The WHO said only 10 new cases were reported in China on Tuesday outside Hubei.

FEARS FOR OLYMPICS

South Korea, which with 1,261 cases has the most outside China, reported 284 new ones including a U.S. soldier, as authorities prepared to test more than 200,000 members of a Christian church at the centre of the outbreak.

Brazil reported the first case in Latin America, a source said on Wednesday – a 61-year-old who had visited Italy.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for sports and cultural events to be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks to stem the virus as concern mounted for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japan has nearly 170 cases, besides the 691 linked to a cruise ship that was quarantined off its coast this month. Six people have died there, including four from the ship.

There have been nearly 50 deaths outside China, including 12 in Italy and 19 in Iran, according to a Reuters tally.

While Iran has reported only 139 cases, epidemiologists say the death rate of around 2% seen elsewhere suggest that the true number of cases in Iran must be many times higher, and cases linked to Iran have been reported across the Middle East.

In Europe, Italy has become a front line in the global outbreak with 322 cases. Italians or people who had recently visited Italy have tested positive in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Romania, Spain and Switzerland.

Two hotels, one in Austria and one on Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands, were locked down over cases linked to Italy.

Authorities said the more than 700 guests at Tenerife’s four-star Costa Adeje Palace could leave their rooms after a day of confinement but would have to stay in the hotel for 14 days.

“It’s very scary because everyone is out, in the pool, spreading the virus,” said 45-year-old Briton Lara Pennington, fearing for her two young sons and her elderly in-laws.

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html)

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen and Susan Heavey in Washington, Diane Bartz in Chicago, Gavin Jones, Francesca Piscioneri and Crispian Balmer in Rome, Ryan Woo, Yilei Sun and Lusha Zhang in Beijing, Kate Kelland in London, Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in Seoul, Geert De Clercq in Paris, Paresi Hafezi and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai and Stephanie Nebehay and Michael Shields in Geneva; Writing by Michael Perry, Nick Macfie and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Pravin Char and John Stonestreet)

Brazil Amazon deforestation soars to 11-year high under Bolsonaro

By Marcelo Teixeira

SAO JOSE DOS CAMPOS, Brazil (Reuters) – Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest rose to its highest in over a decade this year, government data on Monday showed, confirming a sharp increase under the leadership of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.

The data from Brazil’s INPE space research agency, which showed deforestation soaring 29.5% to 9,762 square kilometers for the 12 months through July 2019, sparked an uncharacteristic admission by the government that something needed to be done to stem the tide.

It was the worst level of deforestation since 2008, heaping further pressure on the environmental policy of Bolsonaro who favors developing the Amazon region economically.

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest and is considered key to the fight against climate change because of the vast amounts of carbon dioxide it absorbs.

Risks to the forest drew global concern in August when fires raged through the Amazon, drawing sharp criticism from France’s President Emmanuel Macron.

At a briefing to discuss the numbers, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said the rise in deforestation showed the need for a new strategy to combat the illegal logging, mining and land grabbing which he said were to blame.

Environmentalists and nongovernmental organizations placed the blame squarely on the government, saying that Bolsonaro’s strong pro-development rhetoric and policies to weaken environmental enforcement are behind the rise in illegal activity.

“The Bolsonaro government is responsible for every inch of forest destroyed. This government today is the worst enemy of the Amazon,” said Marcio Astrini, public policy coordinator for Greenpeace, in a statement.

Bolsonaro’s office directed Reuters to remarks made by Salles and another official and did not comment further on the issue.

In August, Reuters reported Bolsonaro’s government had systematically weakened environmental agency Ibama, grounding a team of elite enforcement commandos and forbidding agents from destroying machinery used to illegally deforest.

Brazil’s Climate Observatory, a network of nongovernmental organizations, said the 2019 increase in deforestation was the fastest in percentage terms since the 1990s and the third fastest of all-time.

In response to the numbers, Salles vowed to roll out a series of measures to counter the rising deforestation, including stepping up enforcement efforts assisted by high-resolution satellite imaging.

The minister said he would meet governors of Amazon states on Wednesday to discuss tactics to counter deforestation.

All options are on the table, according to Salles, including mobilizing the military for use in environmental enforcement operations.

GOVERNMENT REVERSAL

Salles’ recognition that deforestation is indeed on the rise comes after months of the government casting doubt on preliminary monthly data showing destruction was skyrocketing.

At multiple press briefings earlier this year, Salles alleged the monthly data was unreliable and contained inconsistencies. He had urged journalists not to report the monthly figures and wait for the annual data, announced Monday.

Bolsonaro had accused the INPE space research agency of lying about the monthly data. In a high-profile dispute, then-INPE chief Ricardo Galvao stood by the data and called Bolsonaro “a joke of a 14-year-old boy that is not suitable for a president of Brazil.” Galvao was later fired.

The annual figure accounts for seven months under Bolsonaro, but also measures five months under the previous government.

It also does not account for destruction after July. Preliminary data for August to October shows deforestation more than doubled compared to the same period a year-prior to 3,704 square kilometers.

NGOs say they fear that protections could be weakened further as the government considers allowing commercial agriculture on native reserves, expanding wildcat mining and allowing for illegally occupied land to be “regularized.”

Beef prices are also at record highs in Brazil, leading some environmentalists to fear it could fuel land grabbing for cattle ranching – one of the biggest drivers of deforestation.

“The coming years could be even worse,” said Carlos Rittl, executive-secretary for Climate Observatory.

 

(Reporting by Marcelo Teixeira; Writing by Jake Spring and Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Alex Richardson and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. raps global health summit over abortion, sex education

By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Ten countries – including the United States, Brazil and Egypt – criticised a global conference on sexual and reproductive health on Thursday, saying it promoted abortion and sex education.

Heads of state, financial institutions and donors were among the 9,500 delegates in Nairobi this week to address maternal mortality, violence against women and voluntary family planning.

But 10 of the United Nation’s 192 member states said they did not support the International Conference on Population and Development’s (ICPD) use of the term “sexual and reproductive health and rights” as it could be used to promote abortion.

Valerie Huber, senior policy advisor with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said not all countries had been fully consulted ahead of the event, organised by the United Nations, Denmark and Kenya.

“There is no international right to abortion. In fact, international law clearly states that everyone has the right to life,” said Huber.

“We cannot support sex education that fails to adequately engage parents and which promotes abortion as a method of family planning,” she said in a joint statement on behalf of the group.

In 2017, President Donald Trump reinstated a decades-old, U.S. government policy that restricts international aid to charities that support abortion.

The so-called global gag rule has forced the closure of health clinics, outreach programs and refugee services by charities, risking the health of millions of women, reproductive rights experts said.

UNDER ATTACK

Sexual and reproductive rights campaigners said the U.S.-led statement was discouraging with women’s rights already threatened by far-right, populist rhetoric across the world, including moves to restrict abortion in the United States.

The ICPD conference marks 25 years since a landmark summit in Cairo when nations agreed to address issues such as maternal health, violence against women and equal opportunities.

Every day, more than 800 women die from preventable causes during pregnancy and childbirth, according to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA). More than 230 million women want to prevent pregnancy but are not using modern contraception.

One in three women globally have faced some form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the UNFPA.

Organisers of the Nairobi summit denied any suggestion the event was exclusively focused on abortion or sex education.

“I believe their statement is based on some misunderstandings of what this is about,” IB Petersen, Denmark’s special envoy for the ICPD, told a news conference.

“This is not a pro-abortion summit – it is about the ICPD program of action – abortion is part of that.”

Petersen said the summit had already yielded results, citing a pledge by Kenya to end female genital mutilation by 2022.

Almost $10 billion in investments has also been pledged by countries – including Britain, Norway, Germany and Denmark – and a host of private organisations.

The UNFPA estimates countries need about $264 billion to end maternal deaths, gender-based violence, child marriage, and provide family planning to all women by 2030.

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Claire Cozens and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

As Amazon burns, 230 big investors call on firms to protect world’s rainforests

By Gram Slattery

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – With widespread fires wreaking havoc on the Amazon, over 200 investors representing some $16.2 trillion under management on Wednesday called on companies to do their part in halting the destruction of the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

Nongovernment organization Ceres said in a statement that 230 funds have signed a declaration calling on firms to keep a close tab on supply chains, among other measures to curtail forest destruction.

Signatories range from major private managers like HSBC Global Asset Management and BNP Paribas Asset Management to public pension funds like California’s CalPERS, according to a list provided by Ceres, a Boston-based NGO encouraging sustainability among investors.

“Deforestation and loss of biodiversity are not only environmental problems. There are significant negative economic effects associated with these issues and they represent a risk that we as investors cannot ignore,” said Jan Erik Saugestad, CEO of Storebrand Asset Management, Norway’s largest private asset management firm and one of the signatories.

The resolution did not explicitly say signatories were threatening to withdraw investments from any companies. Still, it added to the pressure that international corporations and investors have put on partners operating in the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest that lies in Brazil, Bolivia and seven other countries.

In Brazil alone, more 2,400 square miles of the Amazon have been deforested this year, an area larger than the U.S. state of Delaware.

Meanwhile, 60,472 fires have been recorded year-to-date in the Amazon, up 47% from last year, according to government data. Many fires have been set intentionally by farmers and ranchers, and the response of the government of Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been criticized as indifferent.

In neighboring Bolivia, President Evo Morales has come under scrutiny for his ambitions to make the country a global food supplier, calling agricultural commodities the “new gold” that will help diversify the economy.

The resolution called on companies to implement a “no deforestation policy” with “quantifiable, time-bound commitments,” assess and disclose the risks their supply chains pose to forests, establish a monitoring system for supply chain partners and report annually on “deforestation risk exposure and management.”

“There is an urgent need to focus more on effective management of agricultural supply chains,” Jan Erik Saugestad, CEO of Storebrand Asset Management, was quoted as saying in a statement released by Ceres.

In August, VF Corp – owner of apparel brands such as The North Face and Vans – said it would stop purchasing leather from the Amazon in response to the fires.

Norway, home to the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, has urged several of its companies to ensure they do not contribute to Amazon deforestation, including oil firm Equinor ASA, fertilizer-maker Yara International ASA and aluminum producer Norsk Hydro ASA.

Separately, investors managing $15 trillion in assets turned up the heat on oil and gas sector ahead of a United Nations summit in New York aimed at accelerating efforts to fight climate change.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by Tatiana Bautzer in Sao Paulo; Editing by David Gregorio)

Years after nun’s murder, church activists face threats in lawless Amazon

By Nacho Doce and Pablo Garcia

ANAPU, Brazil (Reuters) – Fourteen years ago, on a dirt road near a remote settlement in northern Brazil, a gunman paid by local cattle ranchers executed a U.S. nun who had spent much of her life fighting to save the Amazon rainforest and advocating for the rural poor.

The 2005 killing of 73-year-old Dorothy Stang, who was shot six times in the chest, back and head, shocked the world.

Her former colleagues, who still live near the town of Anapu in the state of Para where she worked, say the area remains as lawless and as dangerous as ever.

“The people here are eager to plant trees, to preserve the forest, to keep it standing and defend it, even with their lives,” said Sister Jane Dwyer, as she held a photo of her murdered colleague. “Because there are people here who have fled from gunmen and from threats.”

Their situation highlights the problem of policing the vast Amazon, where this year loggers, cattle ranchers, and farmers have been accused of triggering a sharp rise in fires and deforestation.

Dwyer and other nuns have recorded 18 deaths of local subsistence farmers in the region since 2015. They say the farmers were murdered over land disputes and that at least 40 people have left the area after receiving threats.

The Para state attorney general’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the allegations.

The Amazon fires have created a major crisis for far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who reacted with fury to global accusations that he was not doing enough to protect one of the world’s key bulwarks against climate change.

Critics said his election victory emboldened his gun-toting supporters to ignore environmental regulations. He has denied that, but he took office in January vowing to bring progress to the Amazon, and has long criticized indigenous reservations and environmental fines as a brake on development.

Bolsonaro is also a long-time skeptic of non-governmental organizations, including the Roman Catholic church, that work in the Amazon, arguing that they are seeking to curtail Brazil’s sovereignty. When the news of the blazes first broke, he even accused NGOs of starting the fires, without providing evidence.

His approach has caused tensions with global leaders, including Pope Francis. The first Latin American pontiff said this month that rapid deforestation should not be treated as a local issue since it threatened the future of the planet.

Next month, the Vatican will host a synod with bishops and other representatives, including indigenous peoples from across South America. The issue of protecting the Amazon will likely loom large.

‘WE’RE SCARED’

Deep in the rainforest and far away from the corridors of power, protecting the Amazon is a lonely, challenging and increasingly dangerous task, say those at the frontline.

In Anapu, the federal government terminated a contract last month with a local security firm that was designed to provide protection for residents and the surrounding forest from invaders, residents said. The contract was not renewed due to a lack of funding, residents said they were told. INCRA, the government agency involved, did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters. The security contractor referred questions to INCRA.

Vinicius da Silva, 37, who leads an environmental conservation society in a local reserve and said he has faced threats from loggers, decried the lack of support.

“We have no protection,” he said. “We’re scared. We don’t know who comes into the reserve and what they’ll do inside it. We know they’re doing bad things in there, but when we ask the government to help, they come to look at the environmental damage and they say we did it.”

Brazil’s environment ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bolsonaro has said that Brazil, facing a steep budget shortfall after years of recession, does not have the resources to police the vast Amazon.

But Father Amaro Lopes de Souza, who like Stang has fought for landless rights and environmental preservation in the region, said the president had not done enough to protect the people or the forest.

“Those who are destroying the Amazon are the big farms, and it’s those big farmers who made (Bolsonaro) president. Now, they think they can deforest and burn and devour everything,” he said.

(Reporting by Nacho Doce and Pablo Garcia, Writing and additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

‘Day of Fire’: Blazes ignite suspicion in Amazon town

By Stephen Eisenhammer

NOVO PROGRESSO, Brazil (Reuters) – A maverick journalist in this isolated Brazilian ranching town warned his readers last month that the surrounding Amazon was about to go up in flames.

Queimadas, or burnings, are nothing new in Novo Progresso, located on the frontier where Brazil’s farmland edges the Amazon rainforest in the northern state of Para. Locals say farmers annually use fire to illegally clear pastures or newly deforested areas.

But the Aug. 5 article in the online Folha do Progresso was eerily specific about an upcoming “Day of Fire.”

It said growers and ranchers were planning to set a coordinated series of fires in the forest and nearby land on Saturday, Aug. 10, inspired in part by President Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s right-wing leader has vowed to open the world’s largest rainforest to more development. Punishment of environmental crimes has plummeted on his watch.

When the day came, the number of fires tripled from the prior 24 hours. Government data recorded 124 blazes, compared to just six on Aug. 10 last year.

Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In an Aug. 25 message on Twitter, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said Bolsonaro had ordered a “rigorous” probe to “investigate and punish those responsible” for the Novo Progresso fires.

State and federal police have since descended on this rough-edged town of 30,000. Some residents are not pleased with the sudden attention. Most farmers approached by Reuters declined to be interviewed. Many dismissed the Folha do Progresso story as rubbish, the invention of a fabulist.

“For you outsiders, we’re all criminals here,” one rancher said, declining to give his name.

Adecio Piran, the reporter who wrote the article, told Reuters he temporarily went into hiding after receiving death threats. He stands by his story.

According to prosecutors investigating the case, Brazil’s government did not move aggressively to prevent the conflagration, despite forewarning.

Prosecutor Paulo Oliveira said he notified Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama, about the Folha do Progresso article on Aug. 7. The agency responded on Aug. 12, two days after the “Day of Fire,” saying it lacked the police support needed to investigate the matter, according to copies of the correspondence between Ibama and Oliveira reviewed by Reuters.

Ibama did not respond to a request for comment.

Army troops were dispatched to the area weeks later. By last Wednesday, there were about 200 soldiers camping on a dusty patch of land used for country fairs on the edge of town.

As Reuters drove the long road into town on Aug. 30, smoke still hung heavy in parts. Charred tree trunks and ash littered the ground where jungle recently stood.

Brazil’s Environment Ministry declined to comment for this story. Salles, the minister, has said previously that overly restrictive environmental policies have incited rural dwellers to resort to illegal logging and mining to make a living.

The “Day of Fire” is part of a brutal wave of destruction in Brazil’s rainforest this year. Some 6,404.8 square kilometers (2,472.91 square miles) have been despoiled, double the area felled at this point last year and larger than the U.S. state of Delaware.

Images of the Amazon burning have sparked international condemnation of the environmental policies of Bolsonaro, who has dismissed those concerns as outsiders meddling in Brazil’s internal affairs.

Townspeople in Novo Progresso bristled with resentment at the arrival of federal police and the military. Cattle traders complained it was bad for business.

Madalena Hoffmann, a former mayor of Novo Progresso, said she did not know if the Aug. 10 fires were intentionally coordinated. She said deforestation has gone too far. But like many here, she blames the government for imposing environmental rules so complicated and strict that farmers feel they must break the law to ply their trade.

“Fundamentally it’s the government’s fault,” she said.

‘ABANDONED’

Novo Progresso dates to the early 1980s, when Brazil’s military dictatorship lured families here with the promise of land and opportunity.

The armed forces, where former Army captain Bolsonaro got his start, viewed the largely uninhabited Amazon as a vast, resource-rich asset vulnerable to invasion or exploitation by foreigners. The military built roads and encouraged settlement.

But by 1985, the dictatorship had fallen. The newly democratic government began what would become a very different policy towards the Amazon: conservation.

“We were abandoned,” said Moises Berta, a 59-year-old rancher. Sipping coffee under a dawning sky at a bakery popular with farmers, he said he moved to Novo Progresso as a young man in 1981 with hopes of starting a successful farm.

Berta said the government has left him and others in the lurch by failing to grant clear titles to lands they have worked for years. Possessing the title to one’s farm makes it easier to obtain financing and eventually sell it. Without it, ownership is difficult to prove, making illegal activity such as cutting down forest easier to get away with.

In Brazil, land ownership can be granted by demonstrating the property is being used constructively, is not owned by someone else, and is not located in a protected area – standards Berta says his holdings meet.

But 38 years after arriving, Berta still does not have the title for his ranch beside highway BR 163, a vital artery for transporting soy and cattle, despite repeatedly trying to register it with the federal government.

He might not have the rights to his land, but holding up his phone, Berta showed a document pertaining to four open cases against him from Ibama, the environmental watchdog. Asked what laws he had allegedly violated, he grinned. “I have no idea,” he said.

Ibama declined to comment on Berta’s cases, passing a request from Reuters to the Environment Ministry, which did not respond.

The town’s farmers union says 90% of farmers and ranchers here do not have their land formally recognized by the state. Locals say the process is complicated and that officials are unresponsive. Documents need to be presented in person at an office a five-hour drive away.

Incra, the government body responsible for issuing land titles, said in an emailed statement it was aware of the backlog in the Amazon and that “measures were being developed to promote the emission of the required titles.”

Farmers were further incensed by the 2006 creation of a vast reserve to the west of Novo Progresso called the Jamanxim National Forest, which they say has strangled their ability to expand. The federal government was trying to slow deforestation that had cleared much of the forest in neighboring Mato Grosso state and was heading north toward Novo Progresso along BR 163.

Complicating matters, nearly 500 farmers were already inside the reserve when it was created. Most refused to leave, creating a standoff that has yet to be resolved.

Many of the Aug. 10 fires occurred inside the Jamanxim National Forest, the most deforested reserve in Brazil this year, government figures show. Over 100 square kilometers of rainforest there have been cleared since January, an area nearly twice the size of Manhattan.

JOURNALIST IN DANGER

Agricultural interests support an amnesty that would see farmers inside the Jamanxim stay. They have found allies in the Bolsonaro administration.

On Sunday, at a nearby country fair, Special Secretary for Land Affairs Nabhan Garcia told farmers they would get their titles. The administration, he added, was reviewing the “embarrassment” of conservation areas and indigenous lands expanded under previous governments.

State police have so far interviewed about 20 people in connection with the “Day of Fire,” a person with direct knowledge of the case told Reuters. No one has been charged or arrested. State police did not respond to a request to confirm the information.

Prosecutors say they suspect organizers used Whatsapp to coordinate fires along BR 163 to show public defiance of environmental regulations. The Jamanxim forest blazes, they say, were likely the work of land grabbers.

“That’s a coordinated invasion to force the area into farmland,” a second law enforcement source told Reuters. The people requested anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Piran, the journalist believes he is still in danger. A pamphlet denouncing him as a liar and extortionist who lit the fires himself has circulated around town. While no longer in hiding, he still avoids going out at night. Police have asked state prosecutors that he be enrolled in a witness protection program.

(Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer, additional reporting by Amanda Perobelli; Editing by Brad Haynes and Marla Dickerson)