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Every year, during the dry season in the Amazon, Nelci Aparecida de Queiroz sets a fire on her small property in order to be able to plant. This routine has lasted for almost a decade now, ever since she moved with her family to the Iracema Settlement, in Juína Municipality, northwest of Mato Grosso State, in Brazil. Nelci knows that the use of fire does not make the land more fertile, but she cannot find any other way to make pasture from the forest and to clean the area to plant corn and coffee. There is little of the original jungle left. "If we don't do this, we won't get a better farm", she says. Some hundred kilometers away from Nelci's property, there lives Luiz Augusto Do Valle, farmer and great cattle breeder from Rio Branco, Acre State. In his property, of 3.550 hectares the whole process of transforming the forest into pasture was carried out by using fire. This was about 30 years ago, when Valle arrived to the north of the country from the Minas Gerais State. Today, the farmer, owner of 3.700 head of cattle, guarantees that there are no more burnings on his land, but admits that fire is still used because it is the cheapest way to eliminate plagues and to open areas for pasture and agriculture. "I think there is a way to clean the forest without using fire, but it's too expensive", he says.
Nelci Queiroz and Augusto do Valle are but some of the land owners in the Amazon that contribute to Brazil being one of the greatest carbon dioxide emitters (CO2) on the planet. Every year, burnings in the Amazon are responsible for throwing about 200 million tons of this pollutent into the air. The transforming of forests and land for usage in the country answers for 75% of gas emissions that raise the Earth temperature and cause the greenhouse effect. Of this total, 59% come from the Amazon, according to the National Inventory of Emissions carried out by the Ministry of Science and Technology. Official data, however, has not been updated. They refer to the period between 1988 and 1994. For this and other reasons, many researchers question the document and propose new figures. What is known, for sure, is that a great part of Brazilian emissions come from the flames consuming the tropical forest.
In Brazil, the usage of fire for soil management is clearly a habit, not only of rural landowners in the Amazon. In large or small scale, it is used all over the country to burn dry leaves and garbage to many hectares of land. However, those who are experts on soil management get scared when they hear that fire is the only possible alternative. "Fire does not justify" says Carlos Maurício de Andrade, agronomy engineer of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA, in Portuguese), in Acre State. The problem is that a fight to overcome century old cultural procedures cannot be accomplished in a generation.
Substituting fire, according to technicians and some farmers themselves, is not an act of goodness to the environment, but an intelligence and efficient usage of natural and financial resources on a property, be it big or small. But if the objective is to clear out new areas, not even big owners, with more money, say they can prevent burning. "It's a dream to believe you will change traditional methods of cultivating the land (with the use of fire) to mechanical methods. It is economically impossible, there would be no means to pay for a machine to do this", declares Aderval Bento, one of the biggest farmers in Juína (MT).
For small farmers the situation is even worse. In the Iracema Settlement, for example, hiring a tractor for one hour costs about 140 reais (around 70 US dollars), a very high sum for families that survive on 1.500 reais yearly (or 750 US dollars). "Working without fire is expensive and requires time when you use a chain-saw and line up the twigs and branches on the ground. Or you can use a track tractor, which we have no access to" says Ari Pichi, another small farmer from Iracema Settlement.
At times like this, the presence of municipal, state or federal governments is vital be it to provide technology as well as using the financial resources at hand, to change the habit of burning. But what can be easily verified in the Amazon is that the rural population, made up of small farmers, does not receive technical aid, let alone environmental aid. Those ahead of the agricultural frontier expansion, on the other hand, have little interest in less aggressive techniques when the objective is to occupy and clear out new areas. More than the product of villainy on behalf of some people, it is a clear sign that the use of fire, despite appeals from environmentalists and from the government itself, is the consequence of the economic model chosen by Brazil.