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In The Amazon's Fire Season, 'You Either Burn Or You Starve'
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In The Amazon's Fire Season, 'You Either Burn Or You Starve'

Environment

In The Amazon's Fire Season, 'You Either Burn Or You Starve'

They call it the "burning season" in the Amazon, and when we arrive in Brazil's western state of Rondonia, it's on fire.

A thick, acrid smoke permeates everything, making it difficult to see. Fire, people say in Rondonia, is part of the culture of the state: The ash from the burned trees is the only way to make the land fertile, argue some. Others say fires are also started to simply clear land for cattle. Or to make space to build a house. Fire allows people to eke out a living off the land in the rain forest.

Except it's an ecological and human disaster. The smoke causes respiratory problems. The fires often rage uncontrolled. They burn crops and virgin forest alike. They are also being used more often.

These man-made fires are up 30 percent from last year.

In the western state of Rondonia, a patch of the forest burns near a small farm. i

In the western state of Rondonia, a patch of the forest burns near a small farm. Kainaz Amaria/NPR hide caption

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In the western state of Rondonia, a patch of the forest burns near a small farm.

In the western state of Rondonia, a patch of the forest burns near a small farm.

Kainaz Amaria/NPR
This caretaker of a small farm outside Porto Velho says he is burning his boss's land to make it better for the cattle.

This caretaker of a small farm outside Porto Velho says he is burning his boss's land to make it better for the cattle. Kainaz Amaria/NPR hide caption

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Farmers like Amado Pedro da Silva, 63, who owns a small farm, believe you don't have to burn the land. When nearby farmers set fires, they inevitably spread and da Silva loses valuable crops like this pineapple field that was destroyed. "If you live with the land, the land will protect you," he says. "If you poison it, the land will attack you."

Farmers like Amado Pedro da Silva, 63, who owns a small farm, believe you don't have to burn the land. When nearby farmers set fires, they inevitably spread and da Silva loses valuable crops like this pineapple field that was destroyed. "If you live with the land, the land will protect you," he says. "If you poison it, the land will attack you." Kainaz Amaria/NPR hide caption

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Deforestation in this part of Brazil happens in phases. Once the area has been cleared of its valuable wood, people move in. The rest of the land is then burned so it can be used for cattle, and then eventually for farming. i

Deforestation in this part of Brazil happens in phases. Once the area has been cleared of its valuable wood, people move in. The rest of the land is then burned so it can be used for cattle, and then eventually for farming. Kainaz Amaria/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kainaz Amaria/NPR
Deforestation in this part of Brazil happens in phases. Once the area has been cleared of its valuable wood, people move in. The rest of the land is then burned so it can be used for cattle, and then eventually for farming.

Deforestation in this part of Brazil happens in phases. Once the area has been cleared of its valuable wood, people move in. The rest of the land is then burned so it can be used for cattle, and then eventually for farming.

Kainaz Amaria/NPR
An aerial view of Rondonia, near its capital Porto Velho during the "burning season," shows how small fires run up next to the forest, where they can go out of control, burning crops and virgin forest alike.

An aerial view of Rondonia, near its capital Porto Velho during the "burning season," shows how small fires run up next to the forest, where they can go out of control, burning crops and virgin forest alike. Kainaz Amaria/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kainaz Amaria/NPR

Among those burning their land to survive is Maria Leonilda Mattara, a subsistence farmer.

She calls her purple home "the house at the end of the world." She lives in an isolated community of small farms on the edge of the forest. She says you have two choices in the Amazon: "You either burn or you starve."

Maria Leonilda Mattara has a small farm on the edge of the forest just outside Porto Vehlo, the capital of the western Brazilian state of Rondonia.
Kainaz Amaria/NPR

This is how the forest gets eaten away today — the poor, like Mattara, are pushing civilization deeper into the wilderness, destroying the trees we all need.

Mattara is a deforester, but she is not a villain. You can listen to her story below.

In The Amazon's Fire Season, 'You Either Burn Or You Starve'
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Correction Nov. 11, 2015

A previous version of this story misspelled Maria Leonilda Mattara's last name as Matara.

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