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Fire is legend

Helmut Sorge | Posted : September 11, 2019


The power of fire is a legend, a myth. Reality. The Combustion Triangle-heat, fuel, oxidizing agent. Its importance to   civilization debated by philosophers in ancient Athens, tempting Prometheus to steal fire from the Gods to protect the otherwise helpless humans. Fire is part of life, as is the sun, fire consumed cities in war and San Francisco after an earthquake or just burned to glorify the spirits, provoking fear, the devil, ghosts, and the desperate in poverty, burn baby, burn. The earth consumed by fire. Yesterday, tomorrow. Life reduced to ashes. Death. Mentioned in the bible “Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the LORD descended on it in fire; the smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently” (Exodus 19:18). Fire is part of history, ever since Nero, the emperor, was accused to have fiddled while Rome was burning.


Historians believe that violins or similar instruments did not exist in the year Anno Domino 64, when some merchant shops caught fire around Rome’s Chariot stadium, the Circus Maximus. For nine days, the fire burned, racing through narrow streets, driven by winds, reaching the slopes, reignited by arsonists and looters, throwing torches on dried fields. The flames which consumed 10 of 14 districts of the capital, turning a million people into homelessness. On July 19th, the emperor was 35 miles out of town, in his Villa in Antium and returned, unable to save his palace, the Domos Transitoria, or the Forum, the cultural and political center of town, where debates were staged, criminal trials or gladiatorial fights. Nero, a sadistic and ruthless ruler, may not have fiddled, but quickly the tyrant was accused of being the real arsonist. Nero wanted to enlarge his palace, but the lack of space hindered him. The emperor accused the Christians to be the guilty (then an obscure sect), had many arrested and some executed.  His new home, Domus Aurea (“Golden Palace”), would finally occupy one third of Rome’s surface, including unending pleasure gardens and an artificial lake. An early case of deforestation, sort of. Sounds familiar- fire and politicians?


1955 years and one month after the Great Fire of Rome the Amazon is burning, considered the lungs of our planet, home to a fifth of the earth’s supply of fresh water. It serves as an important filter, soaking up carbon dioxide and keeping global temperature from rising. That, reported the “New York Times” has led many world leaders and environmentalists to see the Amazon as an “invaluable piece of world heritage, that must be zealously conserved”. Data released by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research shows that from January to July of this year, fires consumed 4.6 million acres of the Brazilian Amazon, a 62 percent increase compared with last year. Researchers are just beginning to understand what that means in pure statistics: during the first seven months of 2019, deforestation and fires released between 115 and 155 million tons of climate harming carbon dioxide. The G7, debating world problems in French Biarritz, added the fires in Brazil as an “emergency” onto the agenda, because, as French President Emmanuel Macron put it, “our house is on fire”. The threat of runaway deforestation”, warned the “Economist” in a cover story titled-- “Deathwatch”(3 august 3 to 9 , 2019).Only one of the G 7 leaders skipped the session on climate, oceans and biodiversity-Donald Trump, for whom the warming of the earth is a hoax, finally giving Eskimos and  penguins in the Antarctic a chance to get a tan. Photos of the fires, 26000 until august of this year, have been shared by NASA, politicians and celebrities setting off a call on instagram, “Pray for Amazon”.


Brazilians’ President, Jair Bolsonaro, 64, elected in October 2018, accused Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), ecologists and environmentalist of being arsonists (just as Nero accused the Christians 46 AD), attempting to drive Brazil into a colonial future. His foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, claimed that climate change was a Marxist plot, and once Emmanuel Macron dared to criticize Brazil, the Brazilian President promised never to use a French BIC pen anymore. Foreign minister Araujo advanced a theory that Nazism was a leftist movement, a claim his boss repeated when he visited  the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. When the former Army captain tried to correct his faux pas, he added: “We can forgive, but we cannot forget” the holocaust. Since the Brazilian President has promised to follow Trump’s example and move the embassy of Brazil from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he was not publicly humiliated by his hosts. The Israeli government knew how to deal with their guest, a right wing populist, who would not have many arguments with their own prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, threatened to lose his own job in a few weeks. Bolsonaro promised “to make Brazil great”, but on his path into the shadows of the US President, the father of four sons degraded homosexuals by declaring, “I would be incapable of loving a homosexual son. I would prefer my son die in an accident than show up with some guy with a mustache”, stating about a female political opponent, “she is not worth raping”. Immigrants are “scum”, the UN “a bunch of communists.” The Brazilian President supports torture of drug dealers, the use of firing squads and an aggressive police force: “A policeman who does not kill is not a policeman”. When the former Member of Parliament was elected, Trump tweeted, “The USA is with you”. Much of Bolsonaro’s political support comes from agribusiness, the arms industry and the religious right, a          “nexus of power” as the “New Yorker” stated (april 1, 2019), also known “as the Three B’s-beef, bullets and bibles.”

Once in office, the right wing leader quickly loosened gun laws, resulting in the rise of the stock value of Taurus, Brazil’s largest gun manufacturer. The economy of the 209 million nation is, after years of devastating recession, virtually stagnant. Twenty five percent of the population lives below the poverty   line of five dollars and fifty cents a day. Many in the Amazon believe strict rules to protect the forest are holding the country, and the local economy, back. With pledges to curb environmental protection Mr. Bolsonaro won 52 percent of the vote in the states that encompass the Amazon, an estimated population of 30 million. These Brazilians argue that fire and deforestation are essential to keep small farmers and large ranches, which export beef and soy to the world, in business. Brazil has strict environmental laws and regulations, but they are often violated without impunity; the vast majority of fines for breaking environmental laws go unpaid with little or no consequences. Less than 10 percent of land in the Amazon in private hands has titles to prove ownership. Chaos reigns in many regions and no one knows who owns what and why. In the Brazilian interior, reported  John Lee Anderson in the “New Yorker”, a vast area with few roads or railways,  the battles for land and survival among settlers, miners, ranchers and indigenous groups “recall life on the earlier American frontier”. The Wild West, including the repression and uprooting of natives, estimated at about one million in the Amazon region. Their rights and culture are ignored since land is needed for farming or the grazing of livestock, deforestation and fires driven by a global demand for soybeans and cattle, particularly as China has gotten wealthier and people are more able to afford beef.


Indigenous rights and environmental policy are intertwined in Brazil: most of its indigenous territories, about an eighth of the country’s total area, are located in the Amazon. Under the left leaning government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, 73, (presently jailed for 12 years for money laundering and passive corruption), the government constrained commercial activities in the region, reducing deforestation by more than 70 percent. Although Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff rolled back some foresting regulations during the recession, Brazil remained a leader in climate change policy. Bolsonaro who views environmental protection as a senseless brake on development, vowed, as Trump did, to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, and dismisses environmental groups as Marxists and elitists, who co-opted indigenous groups to serve international interests. The Brazilian leader refused to accept  20 million dollars emergency aid  for firefighting efforts in the Amazon by G7 leaders, in relation to the urgency a rather modest sum- the price for one “Cessna Citation” jet. The Brazilian government publicly put in question a 1.3 billion Amazon  fund, financed by the taxpayers of Holland and Germany since 2008,  and reminded the worried allies, ”the Amazon is ours, not yours”. The Brazilian leader diagnosed the preoccupation by the industrialized nations with the Amazon disaster as an “environmental psychosis”, supported even by a former minister of the Lula and Rousseff governments, Roberto Mangabeira Unger: “Don’t demand that Brazil turns 61 percent of its national territory into an international park. And don’t expect Brazilians, who have managed to preserve about 80 percent of the trees in their section of the Amazonas to appreciate being lectured by European countries left largely treeless by centuries of deforestation.”


An understandable reaction, although politicians have to explain to their voters why they spend more than a billion trying to save the Amazon as long as the government is encouraging the use of fire and axes to clear tropical forest land. Why they should sign a trade deal with Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and defiant Brazil, yes Brazil, if the Europeans’ preoccupations are considered as colonial attitudes. “The ongoing forest fires in Brazil are deeply worrying”, the European Commission insisted, “forests are out lungs and life support system”. While Brazilian fires have grown into an international crisis, Brazil, possibly overlooked by traumatized Europeans, is only one of many significant areas on our planet where wild fires are burning. As Kendra Pierre-Louis reported in the “New York Times”, earth is ablaze from the arctic to the tropics: “Their increase in severity and their spread to places where fires were previously seen is raising fears that climate change is exacerbating the danger”. Although the Amazon is widely described as the worlds lungs, writes the author, those in Siberia “are as important to the global climate system as tropical rain forests”. Since july, fire has charred about six million acres of Siberian forests. In Alaska, fires have consumed more than 2.5 million acres of tundra and snow forest. These wildfires potentially accelerate climate change by adding significant amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but also killing trees and vegetation that remove climate warming emissions from the air. One reason that arctic wildfires are particularly concerning, wrote the “New York Times”, is that in addition to trees and grassland, they also burn peat, a dirt like material in the ground itself that releases much more carbon dioxide when it burns, than trees per acre of fire. In the past peat fires in northern climates were rare because of moisture that is now disappearing  as the ground gets drier.


Deforestation at rates not seen in more than a decade are not only depleting vast areas of tropical forests of Brazil, but in its neighboring countries as well, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia. President Evo Morales of Bolivia has made expanding the country’s agricultural frontier a priority, sometimes by distributing land to   farmers. An intriguing story is playing out in Colombia, for decades involved in a civil war. The country was spared large deforestations since the rebel groups needed tree covers to avoid aerial bombings and drone   surveillance. Once a peace agreement was signed (2016) by the government of Bogota with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), this nation turned emblematic of rising deforestation in South America:  its loss of about 490 000 acres last year was one of the highest annual rates Columbia has ever seen. The reason: land grabs, also by many former rebels, and the cultivation for illegal drugs. Peru, where the Amazon constitutes about 60 percent of the country’s territory, deforestation is also driven by a growth in the production of coca (the plant used to make cocaine), as well as illegal gold mining. Forest loss in those South American nations, which host roughly 40 percent of the Amazon, underscores how the fires now ravaging part of Brazil and provoking global alarm, are “just one piece of a broader regional crisis”, as Simon Romero wrote in the “New York Times”. While the Brazilian fires are alerting the world, Peru’s remote, southeastern Madre de Dios region, is struggling to respond to fires now burning. For this region’s 82889 square miles, only one firefighting unit can brave the flames, but those firemen are stationed in the capital, Puerto Maldonado, located 34 miles west of the Bolivian border.  Not much hope to stop the flames, just as Nero experienced in Rome, 1955 years and one month ago, when the fires he (possibly) set consumed homes, history and treasures, though allowing him to expand his grandeur on land consumed by the eternal fire.

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