No one has been arrested or even indicted a year after ‘Fire Day,’ an attack organized by ranchers and businessmen from Novo Progresso, which tripled fires in southwest Pará state on August 10-11, 2019. Civil (State) Police and the Federal Police investigations have yet to point out who is responsible for the incident, which was organized on a WhatsApp group and included a ‘kitty’ to buy fuel and hire bikers to spread the flames, as detailed by Repórter Brasil in October last year.
Amazon devastation, which in 2019 reached record levels for the last decade, aroused worldwide commotion and mobilized heads of state to defend the forest. This year, burning season is just beginning in the world’s largest tropical forest, but satellite data already show that fires have increased over last year.
According to the Science Director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), Ane Alencar, one of the drivers for successive increases in forest destruction is the lack of punishment. “Impunity is the cancer that spreads deforestation and fire in the Amazon.”
The first hypothesis investigated by both Civil and Federal Police is that the ‘Fire Day’ was organized by businessmen and ranchers from Novo Progresso, who were questioned and had their documents, cell phones, and computers seized during Federal Police’s ‘Pact of Fire’ operation.
Among those investigated is the president of the Union of Rural Producers, Agamenon Menezes. Cattle ranchers’ pressure target reserve areas such as the Jamanxim National Forest, which they want for pastures. There are 618,000 cattle heads in Novo Progresso alone – with a population of 25,000.
However, the investigation conducted by Civil Police in Novo Progresso states that the fire on that August weekend was spread by dry weather. In addition, the Police understood that such fires happen every year. Despite being under confidential procedures, Repórter Brasil learned from police officers that the investigation does not point to any suspects or authors.
Federal Police, in turn, did not finish the forensic analysis of the equipment seized in operation ‘Pact of Fire.’ The investigation was not finished either. “We depend on the analysis of the media’s content. Unfortunately, the pandemic has delayed everything,” explains Sérgio Pimenta, the sheriff in charge of the investigation.
Since last year, information regarding the Federal Police investigation has not been given to the Federal Prosecution Service. The standard procedure is for information to be shared with the prosecutors every three months. They feel discouraged, Repórter Brasil found out. “If no steps are taken in this investigation for so long, it will be clear that it was not a priority,” says one of the sources interviewed by Repórter Brasil, who requested anonymity.
The Civil Police investigation, in turn, was sent to the Judiciary and the Public Prosecution Service – without pointing out any authors. The Prosecution stated in a note that it requested that the records be returned to the police to take “further and necessary action for a better analysis of the facts,” but without detailing what that action was and claiming that the procedures are confidential.
One fact that hindered the investigations, according to police officers heard privately by Repórter Brasil, is that local ranchers and businessmen are well connected with deputies and senators from Pará, especially those who are part of the so-called ruralist caucus. They also have communication channels to the top federal government officials. Another fact that also contributed to delay investigations was a conflict between civil and federal police in Pará.
Dispute between police forces and the interests at stake
The conflict started when three federal police officers were arrested by civil and military police (two distinct state police forces) in Novo Progresso. They spent a night at the police precinct until they were properly identified – in November 2018. The arrest caused the dismissal of a local Civil Police sheriff.
The dispute became fiercer when sheriff Vicente Gomes, head of the Civil Police Superintendence of Tapajós, determined that the Novo Progresso police should not pass the statements taken under the ‘Fire Day’ investigation on to the Federal Police.
Gomes and other local authorities are members of one of the WhatsApp groups where the ‘Fire Day’ would have been organized, called ‘Jornal A Voz da Verdade’ (The Voice of the Truth Newspaper) with 256 members. The details of the arson, however, were organized in a smaller group called ‘Sertão,’ with 70 members and without police officers, as revealed by Repórter Brasil. When the report was published, Gomes said he would not comment.
Investigations regarding ‘Fire day’ also revealed that the Civil Police precincts in Novo Progresso and Castelo dos Sonhos (an Altamira district near Novo Progresso) are not working in synch. While Novo Progresso investigators took testimonies from influential ranchers and businessmen in the region, officers in Castelo dos Sonhos arrested three landless rural workers on the grounds that they were suspected of being responsible for the coordinated arson attacks in the forest.
The three landless rural workers were in jail for 50 days, and a court order released them after Repórter Brasil questioned the reasons for their arrest. One of the prisoners denounced the presence of illegal loggers in the settlement where they lived. “When the police arrived at my house, I thought they’d come to arrest the loggers, but they arrested me instead,” she told Repórter Brasil, in an interview published in October 2019.
The region affected by ‘Fire Day’ involved areas in the towns of Novo Progresso, Altamira, São Félix do Xingu, and Itaituba. That weekend, the satellites of the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) detected 431 fire spots in the areas of the four towns, which represented 39% of the 3,026 fire spots recorded across Brazil over the weekend. The most affected areas were the Jamanxim National Forest and the Nascentes Serra do Cachimbo Biological Reserve.
The agreement between ranchers and loggers that resulted in ‘Fire Day’ was revealed on August 5, 2019 by journalist Adécio Piran, from Pará-based news website Folha do Progresso. After publication, Piran left town for two months because of the death threats he received. He has been Novo Progresso’s Environment Secretary since May.
In recent decades, Brazil had managed to reduce the area deforested in the Amazon during dry season to around 5,000 square kilometers. In the last cycle (August 2018-July 2019), 10,000 square kilometers were destroyed. According to Ipam, 15,000 square kilometers are expected to be destroyed between August 2019 and July this year, says Ipam’s science director Ane Alencar. “That is a reflection of the feeling of impunity that we are experiencing in this government,” he says.
For her, in addition to impunity, another factor behind the steady increase in Amazon destruction is that the criminals who burn it and deforest it began to feel encouraged by discourses and actions stressed since President Jair Bolsonaro’s election.