Brazilian Fires 'Finally' Spark Colombian Concerns Over Rainforest

Colombians were not overtly upset by deforestation in their country until recently. But massive media coverage of the Brazilian Amazon on fire may be changing attitudes.

Fire in Rondonia, Porto Velho, Brazil on Aug. 26
Fire in Rondonia, Porto Velho, Brazil on Aug. 26
María Mónica Monsalve S.

BOGOTÁ — Brazil's 72,000 forest fires have finally prompted an unprecedented, global reaction to deforestation. One of our readers has angrily written, "My son has sent me El Espectador"s article on the Amazon fires. He asks me what we can do. It made me cross, I don't know. I don't see anything. Desperate things, I guess: clinging to trees. Months ago we were trying to plant something, which requires a lot of energy and strength."

The 72,850 fires registered in Brazil, mostly concentrated in the northwestern states of Acre and Amazonas, are provoking an immense sense of impotence, and prompting people to ask whether something can be done, or if it is too late. How can we avoid deforestation — a phenomenon that we have lived with for years but that needed a huge fire to finally turn into a global conversation?

There have been numerous suggestions intended to make us feel less helpless. Some people are simply praying while others have uploaded pictures onto the social networks. Others are organizing sit-ins or urging people to vote for better politicians. Or should we resign ourselves, or maybe eat less meat?

Carolina Gil, the Colombia program director of the Amazon Conservation Team, says that many feel there is no point in physically going to put out the fire as that is the duty of the Brazilian state. But she agrees with many experts who have spoken to El Espectador, that while there is nothing we can do for the trees and soil that have burned, we can still "honor" them by paying attention to the Amazon region. And not just the 60% of it that is in Brazil but also Colombia's share of the Amazon, which was up in flames just recently and shrank by 144,147 hectares in 2017.

Yes, do cut down on red meat

If we wish to be coherent on "saving the Amazon," we must certainly eat less red meat, or do so at least while demanding that firms and governments duly certify the means of production and origin of red meat. "Livestock farming is the world's biggest engine of deforestation and this happens in Brazil and Colombia," says Rodrigo Botero, head of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, a Colombian non-governmental agency. While in the Brazilian states of Pará, Mato Grosso and Rondonia farmlands are aggressively expanded to make room for livestock, soy and African palm cultivation, in Colombia, Botero says, "in the past three years, they have razed 300,000 hectares to make way for 550,000 cattle heads."

Just like there are international treaties on not buying palm oil that comes from deforested areas, the same should happen with red meat.

The 2018 IPCC climate report was very clear recently in stating that we have already exploited 72% of all unfrozen land and must curb meat consumption. This must go beyond individual decisions meant to put our conscience at rest, and complement governmental action. Governments should ban livestock farming, says Botero, if it entails deforestation or happens in the Amazon. "Just like there are international treaties on not buying palm oil that comes from deforested areas, the same should happen with red meat," says Botero.

The power of electing really Green politicians

Colombia's President Iván Duque recently declared the Amazonian calamity as having "no frontiers." "Everyone must be concerned," he tweeted, adding his administration's willingness to back efforts to "protect the world's lungs," though he did not go into any details. While we have little faith left in our ability to choose politicians, experts agree that politicians do react, and take action, if their image is at stake. "That is where we can do something, with the pressure that we, as citizens, can exert on their political prestige," says Botero. Putting a grim picture of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro next to every photograph of the burning rainforest has consequences. It is true that forest fires are normal in this period, the driest time of the year in that region, but Bolsonaro's climate-hostile policies (he himself is a denier of climate change) have contributed to the current scenario.

Satellite image of the fires burning in South America on Aug. 22 — Source: NASA

Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, has said that Brazil has had many "difficult, environmental moments," but this was the first time the state was brazenly favoring the rainforest's destruction. Speaking in Colombia recently, she said that the Bolsonaro government"s resolve to roll back environmental norms suggested it was "in a race against the Amazonian rainforest, for wood or gold." She insists this is not a matter of politics but of ethics. The technology to avoid the destruction exists, she notes, but "it is the ethics of everyone that have failed here."

But, what is the use of putting pressure on our politicians? Can they do something? Peru's environmental lawyer César Ipeza says that having politicians speak up about the environment "is a first step." This, he says, leads to the possibility of implementing some neglected instruments of international law. "Imagine a scenario in which the effects of pollution from the fires and the smoke reach neighboring countries, similarly to what happened in Sao Paulo. This would amount to cross-border pollution and there is a principle that prohibits any state from using its territory to harm a neighboring country," says Ipeza.

Having politicians speak up about the environment is a first step.

There are grounds for claiming damages and demanding a compensation here, he adds, mentioning the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization that binds eight countries, including Colombia.

A moving image

Both Gil and Botero are surprised by one thing: the number of calls they have received over the past ten days after 30 years of working on the Amazon, including from politicians of differing credos. None of these had shown a particular concern for forests so far. "When they burned land in Colombia earlier this year, we also shared pictures of what was happening," says Botero. "Even though they were just as awful, there wasn't even 1% of the mobilization seen with the Brazil fires."

He urged Colombians to "raise the same hue and cry" when farmers engage in felling and burning in the Colombian Amazon. "I see this as an incredible opportunity," says Botero. "Our neighboring country is burning and people are worried. We are finally seeing the common house, the global house, and people are taking common goods into account."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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