Tuesday 26th November 2019. Four volunteer firefighters (brigadistas) accused of arson were arrested and imprisoned, early in the morning and by surprise. The Civil Police, without duly showing warrant and heavily armed with automatic rifles, entered and seized documentation, computers and even money at the headquarters of Projeto Saúde e Alegría (PSA), a highly respected NGO, which has been working for decades to improve health and social communities in the area of Santarém, in the Amazonian state of Pará.
If we were not in Brazil and currently living a dirty war between the government and NGOs, we would not believe what we were seeing. Given events that happened yesterday, the reaction of the Brazilian authorities to the international scandal unleashed by the massive fires in the Amazon last summer takes a sinister turn.
First, last July, Bolsonaro denied the scale of the catastrophe and questioned the scientific data provided. Afterwards, he accused the international community of wanting to undermine Brazilian sovereignty, regarding it as a virgin (sic) and wanting to appropriate the immense Amazon territory. And finally, he had to admit that the fires got out of hand and he began to work when it was already too late and the army was badly prepared to act as a firefighter.
The sequence of yesterday’s events is very disturbing. A tweet from the Climate Observatory, an organization that brings together several Brazilian NGOs fighting climate change, described the situation very eloquently:
"The story is this: the land grabbers and ranchers set fire to the Amazon. This was an international scandal. The president says the environmentalists ignited the fire. Everyone laughs. Then, the Civil Police of Pará "investigates" the fire and arrests ...the environmentalists."
This is how propaganda works in authoritarian systems: building an alternative reality in order to prove a lie
The objective of accusing NGOs and using the defence that the Amazon is a lucrative business is to present a case that proves this perverse thesis. This is how propaganda works in authoritarian systems: building an alternative reality in order to prove a lie. Fascism aims to turn the news into a mere spectacle and claim that “the truth doesn’t matter”, as Jason Stanley, a professor at Yale, argues in his recent book How Fascism Works.
The four detainees are part of the small voluntary fire brigade called Brigada de Alter do Chao, part of another non-profit organization, Instituto Aquifero de Alter do Chao. The four received firefighting training from the Fire Department in 2018, who they have always work with.
In the absence of any real clarification of what had happened, four volunteer firefighters in pretrial detention spent the night in prison, where they were treated as common prisoners and even had their heads shaven. Upon learning of their arbitrary detention, Amnesty International issued a statement describing this intervention as very worrying.
But the prosecution alleges that, in the course of its investigation and authorized by a judge, they tapped their phones which enabled the transcription of a conversation that occurred during one of the fires of an Environmental Protection Area (APA) in the Alter do Chão area. In the conversation, which was leaked to the press out of context, one of the detainees mentions the sum of 70,000 Brazilian reais (about US$ 16,500) was donated to the brigadistas by the NGO WWF-Brazil.
The prosecution alleges that the brigadistas started the fire in order to receive money from the organisation, although in a statement WWF-Brazil has stated that these funds don’t represent a donation but are part of a joint project to purchase firefighting equipment. In addition, the Instituto Aquifero de Alter do Chão, which received the funds, claims that all operations are well documented and donation statements are up to date.
The operation against the brigadistas tries to construct its alternative truth even by leaking aerial video to the press where members of the brigade could be seen fueling the fire,
But the operation against the brigadistas tries to construct its alternative truth even by leaking aerial video to the press where members of the brigade could be seen fueling the fire, as proof of the accusation. But in a statement, the Institute, which has not had access to the images used by the press, offers two hypotheses about the images: 1) That they are images of a controlled fire during a standard training exercise together with the fire brigade or 2) that the images shows the brigadistas and firefighters using the tactics of “fire against fire”, which is sometimes used to extinguish fires, always under the supervision of the Fire Brigade.
In any case the poisoning is large. As is the indignation of the people and the communities on the ground. The action against the PSA is particularly painful because the organisation was founded by the Scanavino brothers, who, among other things, operate an ambulatory boat that travels tirelessly through the communities providing health services and have earned the affection and devotion of many organisations and communities that inhabit the banks and tributaries of the Amazon and Tapajós rivers.
One of these organisations, formed by indigenous women based in Alter (Suraras del Tapajós) also issued a statement of support and stated that “what we are witnessing is an attempt to manipulate public opinion to demoralize NGOs and social movements. Even us as indigenous people have been slanderously accused of being responsible for the burning of the Amazon. Alter do Chão is a place that is being eyed by developers, and is suffering from invasion and land grabbers, and we are witnessing a reversal of the facts in an attempt to incriminate innocent people and divert attention away from the real problems at stake.
When Bolsonaro gave extractivists all of kinds of unrestricted power to devour the Amazon, he knew that he would encounter significant resistance. Even so, it is evident that he remains convinced that the greed of his predatory model is superior. But confronting that destructive drive there is an important and resilient civil society, including indigenous people who are doing anything to stop Bolsonaro from wining.
The bolsonaristas know that in order to clear the way they need to demonize the NGOs and manipulate public opinion with cases like this one. And they have no qualms about constructing lies that support them, like systematically denying climate change of the Amazon precisely to those who fight to save it.
Last July there was an incident in Alter do Chao central square between a group of local activists and Bolsonaro's education minister, Abraham Weintraub. He ended up publicly confronting the neighbours, and then demanded a decisive action to persecute the activists who only sought to convey their grievances.
It would not be surprising if we are still witnessing the shock waves of that painful episode that exposed the authoritarian and ruthless character of those who govern Brazil today.