In this post, I continue discussing the fieldwork I did in Brazil between July and October 2019, which you can read about here. I feel responsible for clarifying a few aspects of the media fire crisis that hit Brazil in the same period. I will explain why I call it a media fire crisis, but first I give some short background. I need to tell how complex and entwined fire is with humans’ ways of living in Brazilian natural landscapes, then I will argue why the coverage was unhelpful to tackle an authoritarian-inclined administration.
Written by Tiago Reis
The central parts of Brazil, mostly covered by Cerrado ecosystems, have coexisted with natural and induced fires for a long time. As some argue, the Cerrado is how it is because of fire. Smallholders set fire on Cerrado grass and bushlands by the end of the dry season. They rely on the Cerrado’s capacity to recover. They use the resprouting that takes place with the first rains to feed grazing animals. Monoculture farms, in contrast, struggle to avoid burning vegetation that may leak to their fields. For them, organic matter and straws from the previous harvest, mostly corn, are used to cover and protect the soil. They are expensive investments to maintain fertility and productivity. As a result of these divergent practices, traditional and technological farms conflict on many occasions. I saw that. Soy farmers are not interested in burning native vegetation. Land speculators, grabbers, illegal deforesters and inefficient, outdated, cattle ranchers might do that. Therefore, we cannot easily associate soy farmers, as actors, with illegal deforestation and burning in the Cerrado. Unless we go through this long chain of events, where one can argue that soy expansion increases land prices, which in turn stimulates land grabbers and speculators to open “new” lands. We can do that, but it takes more analytical effort. In short, fire is a social-ecological complexity in the Cerrado.
Cerrado ecosystem: the Brazilian savannah.
The Amazon ecosystem is mostly a rainforest. In contrast to the Cerrado, it is humid and not susceptible to fire. Intact forests do not burn, but the piles of cleared and dried biomass in the corners of plots deforested months earlier. Fires in the Amazon are, mostly, a consequence of deforestation, disorder, poverty, criminal activities, illegal logging, and other degrading activities. Amazon fire dynamics are well explained here, and it is more nuanced and complex than portrayed this year by the media. What I want to reflect on here, however, is not the fires themselves, but the disproportionate and shallow media coverage. I do this because, despite my critical political position to the current Brazilian government, I believe that superficial and a-critical media is not helping to inform global audiences, with several exceptions. I don’t think we can overcome authoritarian-inclined and inept governments with sensationalist headlines and easy blame-and-shame. For me, they foster polarisation, disinformation and disengagement, which seem to be the most frequent mistakes made when we try to avoid the installation of authoritarianism.
Now to explain why Brazil was hit by the media fire crisis, in addition to an environmental crisis, let’s look at figures. We can see that Brazil – the whole country, not only the Amazon – had 193,241 active fire spots (87,647 in the Amazon) up to Dec 8 2019. It is a catastrophe. Nonetheless, in 2017, Brazil had 207,511 fire spots (107,439 in the Amazon). In 2016, the country experienced similar levels as in 2019. In 2015 and 2012, for example, the number of fire spots was higher again. If we look at the size of the areas burned, we find the same patterns. Brazil had 305,438 square kilometres affected in 2019. It had 306,993 sq.km in 2017; 354,526 in 2015; 391,800 in 2012, and still not even close the same international media coverage. Why didn’t the outlets come to cover this crisis since 2012 at least? The disaster did not start now. Poverty, illegal deforestation and appropriation of land, violence, weak social-environmental governance, unfair international trade conditions, for example, have been preceding the fire outbreak for a long time. Why did Brazil need fireworks to, finally, call so much media attention? The fires are just the end of the process.
Furthermore, one can always twist these numbers around, compare the week or month in 2019 that had the highest fire occurrences with the same period in 2018 and then claim that fires in 2019 were 10 times higher than previous years. This is not a fair comparison because there may have been a rainfall exactly on that period last year that did not occur this year. To make any balanced assessment , we need to see the big picture, and not just screw numbers to create sensationalist headlines.
I don’t want to defend the Brazilian government, not at all. This government truly deserves all the negative media because it is acting against humanity by encouraging illegality and dismantling social-environmental policies. The fires were outrageously high and should not occur, especially in the Amazon. The fires in the Amazon are a symptom and a consequence of no governance and the federal and states governments are responsible. The question that remains is why was there so much media attention this year and not in others when similar or worse catastrophes took place?
I don’t know. You, please tell me, but the answer might lie in the arrogant and inept claims made by Brazil’s president concerning foreign affairs, the environment, his authoritarian inclinations and other issues, which attracted more media attention? Or the wave of climate emergency declarations by, for example, worldwide scientists, the EU and UK parliaments and roughly 1,200 local governments? Greta Thunberg, the Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion Movements? The western-based media outlets exacerbating the emergency, and also giving disproportionate attention to climate change deniers, to increase readership? Perhaps all of them together. Also, curbing deforestation in tropical developing countries seem to be low-hanging fruit in the quest to decrease global greenhouse gas emissions. Is this a low-hanging fruit because people living on and from forests are mostly poor, and their opportunity costs for not clearing are still low? Maybe. Yet, this is a low-hanging fruit that is not being picked.
The increase in deforestation in Brazil, as some argue, stems from the public discourse of the new federal and some states’ administrations encouraging illegal activities against the environment and from the weakening of enforcement agencies. In short, many land actors, like grabbers, miners, loggers and speculators, felt free to cut down the native vegetation, invade, expel people and communities, put pastureland and claim ownership. The environmental agency no longer enforces the prohibition against clearing. The president has just enacted a new law facilitating land-grabbing. The minister of the environment – often portrayed as the anti-minister – defends the no-ecological measures with the argument that “people need development”. As if development were provided by cutting down trees, under semi-slave-like conditions, or doing unregulated, unsafe and criminal mining in indigenous lands or protected areas. I – and many other people – do not see any development or advantage in this type of activities. Back to the media fire crisis, why does the media comment only when there are fireworks, with so much going around?
Smoke blurs the landscape.
There I was, in the middle of this mess, trying to do fieldwork. I was being singled-out as those unpatriotic Brazilians, who go abroad to stain our national reputation. How could I do that if Brazil’s current president is unbeatable at this task? My object of study was not deforestation or fires, but rather how the soy supply chain functions, who sells to whom, how it reacts and adapts to changes. Nonetheless, I could not avoid being engulfed by the fires; notably, because I saw the front-lines of agricultural frontiers first-hand, the drought, the smoke, the dust, the sore throat, headaches, and exhaustion that accompany the fires. I experienced that not only in this field trip but on many occasions over my life because I already lived in frontiers and I used to work at a Brazilian environmental NGO before starting this PhD.
Sometimes I felt powerless, useless and morally broken, as everything I believed – science, democracy, freedom, nature – was simply discarded or ignored. It seems that none of these matter in agricultural frontiers, where people are either struggling to survive or accumulating obscene amounts of wealth. If you are adamant, stubbornly tough, and want to become rich, go to a frontier. It is the “gold-rush” of the 21st century. I also went to non-frontiers or consolidated agricultural regions in this field trip, and life there feels very different. I saw much less inequality, more prosperity, flourishing economies, and people with satisfaction, a sense of belonging, and purpose in life. Completely different from the ‘survival of the fittest’-mentality of the frontier.
Fire in the savanna – Brazilian Cerrado.
I was not happy with these feelings and conclusions. I kept asking myself, why is it possible to have such lovely social-environmental landscapes in some places and a complete disaster in others? What is it so wrong that people still think they need to go through all this degradation – typical of frontiers – to “develop”? Then I tried to shift my perspective; I became the people I was talking with. I pretended to be wearing their shoes and tried my best to see the situation through their eyes. It took me a while to understand how mentally colonised we are. Everyone. We as people are so colonised that whenever we have the opportunity, we become the colonisers. We are so oppressed that whenever we can, we also oppress. The mission to attain “development” is a colonised mission given by colonisers. For example, a frontier businessman who employs labourers in hard conditions is a coloniser, but he is also a colonised as he does that to supply to global markets. He is perhaps just reproducing what he receives as “the way of doing things”.
I don’t want to simplify the postcolonial debates. I just want to state that I may have finally understood what postcolonialism means by experience. What is worse: venturing into a frontier or having no other opportunity in life? I finally realised that most people, with exceptions, would rather have freedom, capabilities and opportunities to flourish and develop  than live in a frontier. We, as a society, fail to provide these opportunities to all individuals, probably because we are colonisers and colonised who need to produce and consume goods to have value. But this new form of colonialism, which can be linked to consumerism, is subject to another post.
 I recommend these articles to clarify the fire issue in the Amazon: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.14872, https://ipam.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/AmazonBurning_LocatingTheFires.pdf
 Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/163962/development-as-freedom-by-amartya-sen/
Photo credits: All photos are taken by the author, Tiago Reis
His research in COUPLED is focused on understanding how agricultural supply chains behave in face of external changes and shocks. As a result, this research will provide an analytical tool capable of exposing economic, social, environmental and geographical trade-offs for public and private policy-makers who are developing regulations and policy instruments.
Research project: Stickiness in international trade of agricultural and forestry products
Université catholique de Louvain, Earth and Life Institute, Georges Lemaître Centre for Earth and Climate Research (TECLIM)
Place Pasteur 3, bte L4.03.08, 1348 Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium