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)

Macron must take back ‘insults’ for Brazil to accept G7 Amazon aid: Bolsonaro

FILE PHOTO: A tract of the Amazon jungle burning as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Canarana, Mato Grosso state, Brazil August 26, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Landau

By Lisandra Paraguassu and Gabriel Stargardter

BRASILIA/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said on Tuesday he wants French President Emmanuel Macron to withdraw the “insults” made against him before he considers accepting a $20 million offer from the G7 nations to help fight forest fires in the Amazon.

The two leaders have become embroiled in a deeply personal and public war of words in recent days, with Bolsonaro mocking Macron’s wife and accusing the French leader of disrespecting Brazil’s sovereignty. Macron has called Bolsonaro a liar and said Brazilian women are probably ashamed of their president.

The fires in the Amazon have created a major crisis for Bolsonaro’s far-right government. The Brazilian leader is losing popularity at home and finding himself increasingly isolated on the global stage over his response to blazes that threaten what many view as a key bulwark against global climate change.

His response to the fires is being closely watched by world leaders increasingly concerned by climate change, and could threaten Brazil’s trade deals and powerful agribusiness sector, which is a crucial driver of its recession-plagued economy.

However, the offer of aid from the Group of Seven wealthy nations, which was made at a leaders summit in the southern French town of Biarritz on Monday, has stirred up emotions within Bolsonaro’s nationalist government. Some officials are grateful for the much-needed help, and others view it as a colonial token that undermines Brazil’s control of its lands.

Bolsonaro raised Macron’s ire on Sunday when the Brazilian leader responded to a Facebook post that compared the looks of his wife Michelle, 37, with Macron’s 66-year-old wife Brigitte. “Do not humiliate the man hahahah,” Bolsonaro wrote, in a comment widely criticized as sexist.

Macron, who has accused Bolsonaro of lying about climate change policy, called the remarks “extremely disrespectful” to his wife.

On Tuesday, Bolsonaro said he would only countenance accepting G7 money if Macron retracted his earlier comments.

“First of all, Macron has to withdraw his insults. He called me a liar. Before we talk or accept anything from France … he must withdraw these words then we can talk,” Bolsonaro told reporters in Brasilia. “First he withdraws, then offers (aid), then I will answer.”

The French president’s office declined to comment on Bolsonaro’s remarks.

Later, in an at-times fraught discussion with members of his cabinet and governors of Amazon states, Bolsonaro said he did not have anything against the G7 countries, but rather against the president of one of them – a thinly veiled reference to Macron.

He also said he appreciated the environmental work of the G7, but said any efforts to harm Brazil’s agribusiness sector would hurt Latin America’s largest economy.

Other members of his team took a more adversarial tone.

“Where they have passed they have left a trail of destruction, confusion and misery, so they can’t give that kind of advice to anyone,” Augusto Heleno, a retired Brazilian general who is Bolsonaro’s top security adviser, said about France. He also labeled Macron’s posture as childish.

In a boost for the Brazilian leader, U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday tweeted his support for Bolsonaro, an ideological peer on the environment, China and trade.

Bolsonaro “is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil – Not easy. He and his country have the full and complete support of the USA!” Trump tweeted.

The Brazilian president responded on Twitter: “We’re fighting the wildfires with great success. Brazil is and will always be an international reference in sustainable development.”

G7 OFFER

Leaders of the G7 made the aid offer after discussing the fires ravaging the world’s largest tropical rainforest – often dubbed “the lungs of the world”.

Initially, as the fires gained global headlines, Bolsonaro said Brazil did not have the resources to tackle the blazes. Then, in the wake of the G7 offer, his Environment Minister Ricardo Salles called the aid “welcome.”

However, on Monday evening, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff Onyx Lorenzoni said Brazil would reject the G7 offer, although his office said that was his personal view.

The number of blazes recorded across the Brazilian Amazon has risen 79% this year through Aug. 25, according to Brazil’s space research agency. The fires are not limited to Brazil, with at least 10,000 square kilometers (about 3,800 square miles) burning in Bolivia, near its border with Paraguay and Brazil.

But Brazil is at the epicenter of the blazes, which Bolsonaro has blamed on environmentalists, non-government organizations and the weather. He has also said fires in the Amazon were more prevalent under previous left-wing governments.

Weak rainfall is unlikely to extinguish a record number of fires raging in Brazil’s Amazon anytime soon, with pockets of precipitation through Sept. 10 expected to bring only isolated relief, according to weather data and two experts.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia, Eduardo Simoes in Sao Paulo; Additional reporting by Michel Rose in Paris; Writing by Jamie McGeever; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Alistair Bell and Paul Simao)

Rain will not extinguish Amazon fires for weeks, weather experts say

A tract of the Amazon jungle burning is seen in Canarana, Mato Grosso state, Brazil August 26, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Landau

By Jake Spring

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Weak rainfall is unlikely to extinguish a record number of fires raging in Brazil’s Amazon anytime soon, with pockets of precipitation through Sept. 10 expected to bring only isolated relief, according to weather data and two experts.

The world’s largest tropical rainforest is being ravaged as the number of blazes recorded across the Brazilian Amazon has risen 79% this year through Aug. 25, according to the country’s space research agency.

The fires are not limited to Brazil, with at least 10,000 square kilometers (about 3,800 square miles) burning in Bolivia near its border with Paraguay and Brazil.

While Brazil’s government has launched a firefighting initiative, deploying troops and military planes, those efforts will only extinguish smaller blazes and help prevent new fires, experts said. Larger infernos can only be put out by rainfall.

The rainy season in the Amazon on average begins in late September and takes weeks to build to widespread rains.

The rain forecast in the next 15 days is concentrated in areas that need it least, according to Maria Silva Dias, a professor of atmospheric sciences at University of Sao Paulo. Less precipitation is expected in parts of the Amazon experiencing the worst fires, she added.

The far northwest and west of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest will see more rain in coming weeks but the eastern parts will remain very dry, Refinitiv data show.

Even areas with more rain will only get isolated showers, the experts said.

“In some points you could put out some fires, certainly, but these are isolated points, it’s not the whole area,” Dias said.

“The whole area needs it to rain more regularly, and this will only happen further down the line, around October.”

Enough rain has to be concentrated in a short enough period to put out a fire, otherwise, the water will just evaporate, Dias said.

She estimated it would take at least 20 millimeters of rain within 1-2 hours to put out a forest fire, with more required for more intense blazes.

The state of Acre, in the west of Brazil on the border with Peru, is expected to get more fire relief from rains than most of the Amazon. The number of fires in Acre has more than doubled so far this year compared with the year-ago period, with 90 fires registered from Aug. 21-25 alone, according to INPE data.

The western half of the state will get 57.6 mm over the next 15 days, while the east of the state will get 33.5 mm, Refinitiv data show.

Rondonia and southern Amazonas state are expected to get 15-29 mm across the area in the next 15 days.

“In some areas it could reduce the fires, not in general,” said Matias Sales a meteorologist for Brazil weather information firm Climatempo.

The 15-day rain forecast is at or below the average for this period in previous years, according to Climatempo.

The eastern Amazon will stay dry over the next 15 days, with little or no rain in parts of Mato Grosso, Para and Tocantins where fires are up 54% to 161% compared with last year.

The dry season, which varies among parts of the Amazon but runs several months up to September, has been particularly dry this year, Dias said. Mato Grosso has been parched by a cold front that hit earlier in the year, she said.

Dias said she hoped the military would help to prevent new fires but putting out existing fires is a tougher task.

“The small fires will be extinguished but the big fires will go on for a while,” she said.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Richard Chang)

Warplanes dump water on Amazon as Brazil military begins fighting fires

An aerial view of forest fire of the Amazon taken with a drone is seen from an Indigenous territory in the state of Mato Grosso, in Brazil, August 23, 2019, obtained by Reuters on August 25, 2019. Marizilda Cruppe/Amnesty International/Handout via REUTERS

By Jake Spring and Ricardo Moraes

BRASILIA/PORTO VELHO, Brazil (Reuters) – Brazilian warplanes are dumping water on the burning forest in the Amazon state of Rondonia, responding to a global outcry over the destruction of the world’s largest tropical rain forest.

As of Sunday, President Jair Bolsonaro had authorized military operations in seven states to combat raging fires in the Amazon, responding to requests for assistance from their local governments, a spokeswoman for his office said.

Reuters accompanied a firefighting brigade near the state capital of Porto Velho, where there were areas larger than football fields that had been charred, but active fires were contained to small areas of individual trees.

The dozen or so yellow-clad firefighters from environmental enforcement agency Ibama easily cleared brush from around a burning stump with a leaf blower, doused it with jets connected to water packs mounted on their backs and covered it in earth.

A video posted by the Defense Ministry on Saturday evening showed a military plane pumping thousands of gallons of water out of two giant jets as it passed through clouds of smoke close to the forest canopy.

The response comes as leaders of countries in the Group of Seven (G7) nations currently meeting in France expressed grave concerns over the fires.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday said the G7 was nearing a deal to provide “technical and financial help” to countries affected by the Amazon fires.

Nearly 80,000 fires have been registered across Brazil through Aug. 24, the highest since at least 2013, according to space research agency INPE.

Bolsonaro announced the military would be sent in on Friday after several days of criticism from the public and world leaders that Brazil’s government was not doing anything to fight the fires.

He also said on Twitter he had accepted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer of a plane and specialized support for the firefighting operations, following a call between the two leaders.

But outside of Rondonia, the government had yet to provide any operational details for other states. The Defense Ministry said in a briefing on Saturday that 44,000 troops were available in Brazil’s northern Amazon region but did not say how many would be used where and what they would do.

Military personnel around Porto Velho appeared to be largely coordinating firefighting efforts, according to a Reuters witness.

Asked for additional details, the Defense Ministry told Reuters in a statement that in all seven states that have asked for help, the military is planning operations to support firefighting initiatives already underway.

Justice Minister Sergio Moro had also authorized a force of military police to assist in fighting the fires, with 30 set to be sent from Brasilia to Porto Velho. The president’s office posted to Twitter a photo of police officers on a plane bound for Rondonia set to arrive at noon.

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles posted a video showing a caravan of yellow fire prevention trucks and other government vehicles, saying they were on the ground responding in Rondonia.

Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Sunday he would seek a conservation pact with other Amazonian countries – first in bi-lateral meetings in Peru this week and then at the United Nations General Assembly.

“Colombia wants to lead a pact, a conservation pact, between the countries that have Amazon territory,” Duque said after meeting with an indigenous community in the Amazonian city of Leticia in southern Colombia. “We must understand the protection of our Mother Earth and our Amazon is a duty, a moral duty.”

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rain forest and is seen as vital to the fight against climate change because of the vast amounts of carbon dioxide that it absorbs.

The Amazon, which provides 20% of the planet’s oxygen, is home to an estimated one million indigenous people from up to 500 tribes as well some three million species of plants and animals, including jaguars, sloths, giant otters, river dolphins, howler monkeys, toucans, reptiles, frogs and insects.

Brazilian climate scientist Carlos Nobre said he worries if 20-25% of the ecosystem is destroyed that the Amazon could reach a tipping point, after which it would enter a self-sustaining period of dieback as the forest converts to savannah. Nobre warned that it is not far off with already 15-17% of the rain forest having been destroyed.

(Reporting by Jake Spring in Brasilia and Ricardo Moraes in Porto Velho, Brazil; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota, Sebastian Rocandio in Porto Velho, Brazil, Simon Carraud and Michel Rose in Biarritz, France; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Brazil’s Bolsonaro says army may help fight Amazon fires

FILE PHOTO: A tract of the Amazon jungle burns as it is cleared in Iranduba, Amazonas state, Brazil August 22, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said on Friday the army may be enlisted to help combat fires sweeping through the Amazon rainforest, as international condemnation and calls for tough action to quell the unfolding crisis continued to mount.

Asked by reporters in Brasilia if he would send in the army, Bolsonaro responded: “that is the expectation.”

FILE PHOTO: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Brazilian Steel Conference in Brasilia, Brazil, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

FILE PHOTO: Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Brazilian Steel Conference in Brasilia, Brazil, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

The firebrand right-wing president added the decision would be made at a top-level meeting later on Friday.

According to the presidential agenda, Bolsonaro is set to meet with a team that includes the defense and environment ministers and the foreign minister at 3 p.m. local time (1800 GMT).

Fires in the Amazon have surged 83% so far this year compared with the same period a year ago, government figures show, destroying vast swathes of a forest considered a vital bulwark against global climate change.

The leaders of Britain and France have added their voices to an international chorus of concern, with President Emmanuel Macron’s office accusing Bolsonaro of lying when he played down concerns over climate change at the G20 summit in June.

Macron’s office added that, given this context, France would be opposed to the E.U.-Mercosur farming deal struck earlier this year between the European Union and the Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” about the fires and “the impact of the tragic loss of these precious habitats,” and that he would use the summit of G7 leaders this weekend to call for a renewed focus on protecting nature.

On Thursday, as international criticism mounted, Bolsonaro told foreign powers not to interfere.

“These countries that send money here, they don’t send it out of charity. … They send it with the aim of interfering with our sovereignty,” he said.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia, William James in London and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Jamie McGeever and Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

The sky never goes dark while the Amazon burns

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Jake Spring

HUMAITA, Brazil (Reuters) – There are no lights in sight but the night sky glows a dusky yellow, for the Amazon is burning.

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The smell is of barbecue, of wood charcoal up in flames. During the day the sun, usually so fierce in these parts, is obscured by thick gray smoke.

For the last seven days Reuters has repeatedly driven a 30-kilometer (18.6 miles) stretch from Humaita towards Labrea along the Trans-Amazonian highway, watching a fire eat its way through the jungle.

At first, on Wednesday of last week the raging fire stood just a few yards (meters) off the roadway, the yellow flames engulfing trees and lighting up the sky. By the weekend the fire had receded into the distance but cast an orange glow several stories high.

The fire is just one of thousands currently decimating the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest and a bulwark against climate change.

Wildfires have surged 83% so far this year when compared to the same period in 2018, according to Brazil’s space research agency INPE.

The government agency has registered 72,843 fires, the highest number since records began in 2013. More than 9,500 have been spotted by satellites since last Thursday alone.

On Wednesday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro enraged environmentalists by making unfounded claims that non-governmental organizations were starting the fires out of anger after he cut their funding.

Global outrage has torn through social media, with #PrayforAmazonas the world’s top trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday.

Reuters observed plumes of smoke billowing from the forest, reaching hundreds of feet (dozens of meters) into the air, during a weeklong trip to southern Amazonas and northern Rondonia states.

“All you can see is smoke,” said Thiago Parintintin, who lives in an indigenous reserve just off the Trans-Amazonian highway, pointing to the horizon.

A yellow truck bearing the logo of Brazil’s forest firefighters had just rushed past.

“It didn’t use to be like this,” Parintintin added.

A 22-year-old trained indigenous environmental agent, Parintintin blames the increasing development of the Amazon for bringing agriculture and deforestation, resulting in rising temperatures during the dry season.

Fires start in the underbrush that has been drying over the dry season. Smoke envelopes still lush patches of fronds and palm trees, as the understory smolders before the upper tiers of vegetation catch fire.

Environmentalists also say farmers set the forest alight to clear land for cattle grazing.

The smoke from the resulting fires hangs at the horizon like a fog.

Gabriel Albuquerque, a pilot in Rondonia state’s capital city of Porto Velho, said that in four years of flying his small propeller plane it has never been this bad.

“It is the first time that I’ve ever seen it like this,” he said, as he prepared to go up.

From the sky, the fires ranged from small pockets to those bigger than a football field, with the smoke making it impossible to see behind the front line of flames to discern the full extent of the blaze.

Sometimes the smoke was so thick the forest itself appeared to have disappeared.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Death toll in Brazil prison massacre rises to 57 with over a dozen decapitated

Relatives of prisoners wait for news after a prison riot, in front of a prison in the city of Altamira, Brazil, July 29, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Santos

SAO PAULO/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – A bloody clash between two prison gangs on Monday left at least 57 inmates dead with 16 of them decapitated, authorities in the state of Para said, the latest deadly clash as Brazil’s government struggles to control the country’s overcrowded jails.

State authorities said the riot began around 7 a.m. local time (1000 GMT) at a prison in the northern city of Altamira and involved rival gangs.

Prisoners belonging to the Comando Classe A gang set fire to a cell containing inmates from the rival Comando Vermelho, or Red Command, gang, Para’s state government said in a statement.

Most of the dead died in the fire, they said, while two guards were taken hostage, but later released.

“It was a targeted act,” state prison director Jarbas Vasconcelos said in the statement, adding there was no prior intelligence that suggested an attack would take place.

“The aim was to show that it was a settling of accounts between the two gangs.”

Videos circulating online showed inmates at the prison celebrating as they kicked decapitated heads across the floor. Reuters was unable, however, to independently verify the footage.

Elected on a tough-on-crime message, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has benefited from a sharp drop in homicides so far this year. Nonetheless, endemic prison violence has been a stubborn public security challenge in one of the world’s most violent countries.

In May, at least 55 inmates died during prison attacks in the northern state of Amazonas. Weeks of violence in Amazonas in 2017 resulted in 150 prison deaths as local gangs backed by Brazil’s two largest drug factions went to war.

Brazil’s justice ministry said in a statement that it was working with Para authorities to identify those behind the latest attack, adding it had opened some space in the federal prison system where those gang leaders would be transferred.

Brazil’s incarcerated population has surged eight-fold in three decades to around 750,000 inmates, the world’s third-highest tally. Prison gangs originally formed to protect inmates and advocate for better conditions, but have come to wield vast power that reaches far beyond prison walls.

The gangs have been linked to bank heists, drug trafficking and gun-running, with jailed kingpins presiding over criminal empires via smuggled cellphones.

In the country’s violent northeast, prison gangs have grown powerful by moving cocaine from Colombia and Peru along the Amazon’s waterways to the Atlantic coast, where it heads to Africa and Europe. Murderous disputes often arise as they clash over territorial control.

The Red Command hails from Rio de Janeiro, but has expanded deep into northern Brazil as it seeks to diversify its income. That expansion has often led to confrontations with Brazil’s largest and most powerful gang, the First Capital Command, headquartered in Sao Paulo.

The Comando Classe A gang is seen as a relatively small gang, and is little known outside Para. Its high-profile attack against the Red Command could give it a nationwide reputation.

Bolsonaro’s government has proposed moving powerful incarcerated drug lords to federal lockups, and building more prisons at the state level. But with the vast majority of prisons run by Brazil’s overstretched state governments, Bolsonaro is likely limited in terms of what he can achieve from Brasilia.

In February, Justice Minister Sergio Moro unveiled his signature crime-fighting bill, including proposals to toughen prison sentences and isolate gang leaders in maximum-security lockups.

That bill has since struggled in Congress, with the government giving its pension reform legislation priority.

(Reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun and Eduardo Simoes; editing by Gabriel Stargardter, Christian Plumb, Dan Grebler, David Gregorio and G Crosse)

Disaffected Venezuelan military tell of rising desertions to Brazil

A Venezuelan military deserter of the National Guard, who doesn't want to be identified, is seen in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

By Anthony Boadle

PACARAIMA, Brazil (Reuters) – Venezuelan military personnel are deserting to Colombia and Brazil in growing numbers, refusing to follow orders to repress protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, six of them told Reuters.

A lieutenant and five sergeants of the National Guard, the main force used by the Maduro government to suppress widespread demonstrations, said the bulk were going to Colombia, the most accessible border, but others like themselves had left for Brazil.

Colombian immigration authorities said some 1,400 Venezuelan military had deserted for Colombia this year, while the Brazilian Army said over 60 members of Venezuela’s armed forces had emigrated to Brazil since Maduro closed the border on Feb. 23 to block an opposition effort to get humanitarian aid into the country.

“Most military people that are leaving are from the National Guard. They will continue coming. More want to leave,” said a National Guard lieutenant, speaking earlier this month. She had just crossed into Brazil on foot, arriving in the frontier town of Pacaraima after walking hours along indigenous trails through savannah.

Officials in both countries said the pace of desertion has sped up in recent months as political and economic turmoil in Venezuela has worsened.

The deserters, who asked to withhold their names due to fear of reprisals against their families, complained that top commanders in Venezuela lived well on large salaries and commissions from smuggling and other black market schemes while the lower ranks confronted conflicts in Venezuela’s streets for little pay.

“They already have their families living abroad. They live well, eat well, have good salaries and profits from corruption,” said the lieutenant.

The Venezuelan government’s Information Ministry, which handles all media inquiries, did not reply to requests for comment for this story.

In February, Maduro’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samuel Moncada, told a Security Council meeting the number of military desertions had been exaggerated. Foreign ministry spokesman William Castillo said at the time that just 109 of the 280,000-strong armed forces had deserted under Maduro.

A Venezuelan sergeant, who proudly donned his National Guard uniform for an interview in a hotel room in Pacaraima, said he could not provide for his two small sons on his $12-a-month salary.

“We risked our lives so much for the little we were paid,” he said. “I left because of this and the bad orders the commanding officers were giving us.”

The head of Venezuela’s opposition-led congress, Juan Guaido, backed by most Western nations, is trying to oust Maduro on the basis that the socialist president’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

But top armed forces commanders have remained loyal to Maduro because they earn well in dollars and have too much to lose by abandoning him, according to the National Guard deserters.

Maduro has placed military chiefs in high-level jobs running state companies so they do not turn against him, the sergeant said.

“Maduro knows that if he removes them from those posts, the military will turn their backs on him and could oust him in a coup,” he said.

Maduro has called Guaido a U.S. puppet trying to foment a coup, and blames the country’s economic problems on U.S. sanctions.

INMATES IN UNIFORM

Rebellion in the middle ranks of the National Guard has been contained by intimidation and threats of reprisals against officers’ families, the deserters told Reuters. They said phones of military personnel suspected of anti-Maduro sympathies were tapped to watch their behavior.

With desertions on the rise and dwindling support for Maduro, the government has used armed groups of civilians known as “colectivos” to terrorize Maduro opponents, the interviewees said. Rights groups in Venezuela have warned of rising violence meted out by the militant groups.

The government has also released jail inmates and put them in National Guard uniforms, to the disgust of soldiers with years of military career behind them, the six deserters said. It is unclear if the former inmates or militants are paid by the government.

A lack of food, water and medicines, along with extended blackouts, have added to a sense of anarchy, the deserters said.

The uniformed sergeant said he feared bloodshed at the hands of the “colectivos” trying to keep Maduro in power if the armed forces balked at government orders to repress protests.

“There won’t be enough soldiers left with hearts of stone to fire on the people,” he said. “We military know that among the crowds on the streets there are relatives of ours protesting for freedom and a better future for Venezuela.”

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle, Leonardo Benassatto and Pilar Olivares, Additional reporting by Helen Murphy in Bogota and Vivian Sequera in Caracas, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)