By Stephen Eisenhammer
NOVO PROGRESSO, Brazil, Sept 11 (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.
(For satellite imagery of the Novo Progresso fires, see https://tmsnrt.rs/31dSPIO)
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.
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)
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