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)

Decision on Dakota Access pipeline due in next few days

Tipi at sunset protesting against Dakota Access Pipeline

By Stephanie Keith

MANDAN, N.D. (Reuters) – A decision on whether the Dakota Access Pipeline will be allowed to tunnel under a lake near sacred tribal lands in North Dakota will come in the next few days, possibly by Monday, a U.S. government spokeswoman said on Friday.

The statement by spokeswoman Amy Gaskill of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came as police again confronted protesters at a construction site on the controversial pipeline, which has drawn steady opposition from Native American and environmental activists since the summer.

At least 39 protesters were arrested on Friday at the construction site, and deputies took pictures of vandalized equipment, which had wires cut and was spray-painted, Morton County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Donnell Preskey said.

She said police confronted about 100 protesters at the scene.

Smoke was seen billowing from a large excavation machine near a site off Route 6 in rural North Dakota, and protesters had also climbed into other equipment, according to a Reuters witness. Two workers were seen leaving the scene.

Completion of the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, set to run 1,172 miles (1,885 km) from North Dakota to Illinois, was delayed in September so federal authorities could re-examine permits required by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Plans called for the pipeline to pass under a federally owned water source, Lake Oahe, and to skirt the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation by about a half-mile (one km). Most of the construction has been completed, save for this area under the lake.

The Standing Rock tribe and environmental activists said the project would threaten water supplies and sacred Native American sites and ultimately contribute to climate change.

The Obama administration requested a voluntary halt to construction within 20 miles of the lake on each side.

Energy Transfer Partners <ETP.N>, which owns the line, continued to build to the edge of the federal land where the lake is located.

The company earlier this week said it was “mobilizing” drilling equipment to prepare to tunnel under the lake. That has angered protesters, who planned more protests in coming days.

An ETP spokeswoman said, “Construction is actually complete in North Dakota, except for the bore under the lake, so there is nothing for them to stop.”

Pipeline supporters say the project offers the fastest and most direct route for bringing Bakken shale oil from North Dakota to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries and would be safer than transporting the oil by road or rail.

(Reporting by Stephanie Keith in Mandan, North Dakota; additional reporting by Liz Hampton in Houston and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Cynthia Osterman)