In The Amazon's Fire Season, 'You Either Burn Or You Starve' This is the time of year subsistence farmers clear land by setting fires in the Amazon. They say it's the only way they can make a living, but it's delivering another blow to the rain forest.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In The Amazon's Fire Season, 'You Either Burn Or You Starve'


The way a country is named can often tell you a lot. Take Brazil. That South American nation was named after a tree - what the Portuguese conquerors called the Brazilwood tree. The tree was prized as a source of red dye - so much so that the species almost was logged out of existence. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is reporting this week from Brazil's Amazon region, and it's on fire.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: It's the burning season when we arrive in Porto Velho, the capital of the Brazilian state of Rondonia.

There is a thick, acrid smoke hovering all over the city. Anywhere you go, you can feel it. It gets into your eyes. It gets into your nose. It gets into your mouth. And it's like you're standing over a campfire.

And you don't have to travel very far to find out where it's coming from. Porto Velho, in many ways, is a frontier town - a place where the forest rubs up against human settlements. We stop at a small farm, which has just been set alight.

I'm actually walking on the remains of the forest right now. What was once verdant green is now reduced to this white, powdery ash. There are tree trunks smoldering in front of me. Some are actually still shooting up flames. It's an inferno, and we see it everywhere we travel in the state. To understand why the forest is on fire, you need to know that deforestation doesn't happen in one go. It starts with loggers illegally cutting down trees. Once an area has been cleared out of all its valuable wood, the people move in.

DONA MARIA MATARA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dona Maria Matara is one of those people. She lives in an isolated community of small farms on the edge of the forest in a wooden house painted bright purple. I'm interpreting from Portuguese.

MATARA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Saying - "it's the end of the world. We've come from a long way to come to this place, which is the end of the world."

This house at the end of the world, as she called it, is inhabited exclusively by women. Fifty-four-year-old Dona Matara lives with her daughter and her two granddaughters. It's a tough life of eking a living off the land.

MATARA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "That is what subsistence farming is. You know, we eat what we grow."

They grow a little bit of everything - manga (ph), bananas, corn. She then explains this simple fact of life in the Amazon.

MATARA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "You either burn, or you starve. Those are the two choices that we have."

But there's an irony here. The soul that nourishes a rich jungle ecosystem has trouble supporting agriculture.

MATARA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "The ash from the burned tree," she says, "is the only way to make the land fertile again. Fires are also started to simply clear land for cattle. Fire, people say in Rondonia, is part of the culture of the state."

MATARA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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. One fire even made its way this year into government offices that are tasked with monitoring the blazes. The building had to be evacuated. These manmade fires are up 30 percent from last year.

MATARA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dona Matara says she understands that burning is bad, but she feels she has no choice.

MATARA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "What are we going to do if we don't cut down the trees? We will die of hunger."

In Rondonia today, according to some experts, only about a third of its original forest remains in pristine state, but we know how the region used to look. It comes from an unlikely source.


ANDRE STOJKA: (Reading) On February 27, 1914, shortly after midday, we started down the river of doubt into the unknown.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's an excerpt from the book "Through The Brazilian Wilderness." It was written by President Theodore Roosevelt after his scientific expedition through what is now Rondonia. He almost died on his journey. In the book, he described what he saw then this way.


STOJKA: (Reading) The tropical forest came down almost like a wall. The tall trees laced together with vines, and the spaces between their trunks filled with a low, dense jungle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so it remained until the 1970s, when the Brazilian government declared the Amazon open for settlement. Rondonia became kind of like Oklahoma during the land rush. The poor and dispossessed of other Brazilian states were encouraged to move in, and quickly, trees gave way to farms and cattle ranches.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A Brazilian documentary shows footage from the time. Thousands upon thousands of people are getting off buses, and they're hiking into the forest to claim their plots.


JORGE TEIXIERA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is the then-governor of Rondonia, Jorge Teixeira, greeting them. He's saying the policies of giving away land is a welcome development that will bring prosperity to the region. Dona Matara is only the latest settler in that wave of migration.

This is how the forest gets eaten away today. The poor are the tip of the spear that pushes civilization forward into the wilderness. And this matters because recent statistics show that half of all deforestation in Brazil - half - is now taking place on a small holdings like Dona Matara's.

MATARA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Brazilian government is now trying to put a stop to it. A new law says that 80 percent of a property has to remain forested. Even a small infraction can lead to a huge penalty.

MATARA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're walking around her farm, and Dona Matara tells me she's already been fined around $18,000 for cutting down only a few hectares over what's allowed. She says she earns a $125 a month, and she can't afford to pay what she owes.

MATARA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "If I was going to sell this land tomorrow, I wouldn't get enough from the land to be able to pay that fine."

MATARA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As Dona Matara feeds her chickens, she tells me the size of the fines make things worse because once people feel that they're outside the law, they just take down even more trees. And often the only way to get out from under the debt is to sell out to large landholders who consolidate these farms into big ranches. And at that point, the rain forest is well and truly gone. There's nothing left.

MATARA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I asked her - what is the future of the forest? "If the government - if the authorities gave us incentives, we could protect the forest. But the way that things are now, there will not be a single tree left in Rondonia - not a single tree left. If you see all around you right now, they're burning all the farms." And she says she sees no way to stop it right now. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Candeis do Jamari.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.