Volunteer Fire Brigades Are Resisting Bolsonaro’s Ecological Assault on Brazil

Wildfires can be both severe and frequent. increasing all over the world. Brazil has experienced the highest number of forest fires in South America in recent years. In 2019, during the first year of Jair Bolsonaro’s government, fires in the Amazon made headlines around the world. For the first time on record, the smoke from the forest fires in the Amazon reached São Paulo, the largest city in South America, more than 1,600 miles to the southeast of the burned regions. One third of the Pantanal wetland biome (11,000,000 acres) was also burned in 2020. This resulted in an estimated wildlife loss of over 50,000. 17 million animals.

Despite the large fires that erupted in 2019 and 2020, which were associated with higher Amazonian deforestation, the Brazilian government did not create any additional policy to combat forest fires. The Ministry of Environment budget for 2021 was the lowest in 21 year. One of the most important. cuts went to environmental enforcement and firefighting. Brazil experienced the highest number of forest fires for 18 years in May. As we enter into the second half of 2022 and the beginning of this year’s fires season in Brazil, people are bracing for another devastating cycle of destruction for the country’s natural biomes.

Burnt forest by standing native forest.
By standing native forest, you can burnt forest.

With the worsening of forest fires and the spike in deforestation as a result of attacks by Bolsonaro’s government, volunteer forest firefighter brigades started to form around the country. In 2021, street artist Mundano and filmmaker André D’Elia, both from São Paulo, got organized. They took a group of artists well known to the São Paulo street art scene on an expedition to meet the volunteer brigades during the burning season. While they traveled, D’Elia shot scenes for a documentary and Mundano collected ashes he would turn into charcoal paint. Mundano then used this paint to create the largest public mural he has made to date, which he called “Ashes of the Forest,” or “Cinzas da Floresta” in Portuguese.

Start a Forest Fire Brigade

Mundano met Vinicius diniz Mendes during this expedition. Mendes grew up in the outskirts of the west zone of the city of São Paulo, in a predominantly working-class neighborhood. At the age of 30, he visited Chapada dos Veadeiros, a national park located on the top of an ancient plateau that is estimated to be 1.8 billion years old, in the state of Goiás. He says he was unable to rest in São Paulo after that, moving permanently to Chapada some years later, where he works as a crystal therapist and landscaper.

“Every year the park catches fire,” Mendes explained. “At night the fire is very beautiful, so people leave the village and walk to a point where they can look at the fire.” One day, as he watched the fire with the community, he felt uncomfortable and started asking “Are you just going to watch?” After listening to locals repeatedly saying things like “It doesn’t belong to me” or “I didn’t start it,” Mendes decided to act.

Vinicius Diniz Mendes.
Vinicius Diniz Mendes.

Mendes began to light the fire on his own. That day, Mendes wore shorts and flip-flops. Soon, he discovered that other people were doing the exact same thing. A group of friends formed an informal volunteer fire brigade. “We called whoever we knew was interested to come and put out the fire together,” he added. The São Jorge Volunteer Brigade was born.

Mendes shared how the act, as a group, of putting out a fire started to change his outlook. Stopping the fire together as a team was no longer an isolated task. His fellow firefighters became more than just colleagues in the brigades.

Volunteer Brigades at Work

Volunteer brigades often work in coordination and receive training from the state firefighters. Depending on available resources, some members switch from one to another.

Sonia Ara Mirim, an Indigenous woman from the Guarani Mbya Indigenous group, livesThe Pico do Jaraguá, the highest mountain in the BrazilianCity of São PauloShe is located in the smallest Indigenous reservation in Brazil. She is one of five women who founded the Indigenous Brigade Pico do Jaraguá, where nearly 800 people live in six villages. Ara Mirin noticed the forest fires approaching their villages in 2019 when she was just 17.

Volunteer brigade putting out a fire in the Cerrado Biome.
Volunteer brigade fighting fire in Cerrado Biome

“The state firefighters took too long to get to our area,” Ara Mirin explained. “We started to see too many wild animals dying and were concerned about the fires getting to our homes as well.” One of the major challenges for the Guarani Mbyá Peoples’ territory is the access to area — the highest mountain in São Paulo. Ara Mirin said that access to equipment was another challenge. “Often we use our own cell phone lights even when we’re fighting the fires at night,” she said. They received donations over the last year but still don’t have basic safety equipment like goggles.

Ara Mirin explained that despite the difficulty of leaving her children behind and taking risks to fight the fires, she can’t see herself quitting the brigade. “We started with five women, but most of them quit after the first year. I’m the only woman who stayed,” she said. “I see the need to stay together to fight the fires. We need to work together as the forest life is an integral part of our lives. Especially as Indigenous peoples, we live out of the forest; we need to value and protect it.”

Art Meets Activism

D’Elia’s connection with the fires started in 2017, when he shot his second feature documentaryChapada dos Veadeiros is where activists fought for the expansion and protection of the national parks. The plan was approved in the same year. Chapada dos Veadeiros saw its worst fires just a few days after this victory. Activists believed that this fire was a retaliation against agribusiness operatives from Chapada dos Veadeiros, who were upset by the expansion of preservation area. “I felt somewhat responsible,” D’Elia said. “I wanted to help more.”

The idea to increase support to the volunteer brigades with art took shape in conversations between D’Elia and Mundano, who has always been concerned with the environment and social justice. “Ashes of the Forest” was not their first time working together.

Mundano and D’Elia had collaborated on Mundano’s Pimp My Carroça, a street art intervention with independent recycling collectors working in the streets of São Paulo in 2007. This campaign was a worldwide success, with more than 14 countries participating. It reached thousands of independent recycle collectors and was later made an app and a nongovernmental organization.

The “Ashes of the Forest” also took inspiration from another ambitious project led by Mundano. In 2020, the artist collected toxic waste mud from the Brumadinho Dam disaster270 people were killed in the state of Minas Gerais by this act. He used it to paint a 2,600-square foot public mural commemorating its two-year anniversary. Mundano’s intervention brought significant media attention to a disaster many were ready to forget.

The dismantling of the environmental protection agencies and frameworks in Brazil by Bolsonaro’s government, and the record-breaking deforestation in recent years, had been bothering Mundano. But the fires that devastated part of the Brazilian Pantanal wetlandsHe was convinced to get involved in the matter. “We cannot normalize this level of destruction,” he explained. “In 2021, the Amazon lost 1 billion trees! This is 2,000 trees per minute!”

The Expedition: Ashes of the Forest

Mundano and forest fire researcher at one of the fire monitoring towers run by IPAM in the Amazon.
Mundano and forest fire researcher at the IPAM fire monitoring towers in the Amazon.

The expedition “Ashes of the Forest” started in July 2020, with a visit to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, known by its Portuguese acronym IPAM, the Amazon’s most advanced research center on fires. The scientists met the artists and they explained how fires work in tropical forests. Also, the role of controlled flames to control larger disasters. The group learned how to monitor fires from IPAM scientists so that they could locate hotspots during their expedition. They started following the fires by combining publicly available data from Brazilian scientists with NASA monitoring systems.

The group covered 6,200 miles, collected 485 pounds of ashes and traveled to four Brazilian biomes. They started in the Amazon Forest’s south, where they met Indigenous groups and communities. “Unfortunately we saw a lot of green deserts on the way,” Mundano said. “To be honest, most of the time the only things around are agribusiness properties, soy or cattle. For eight or 10 hours nonstop, it’s all you can see.”

Mundano collecting ashes during the expedition.
Mundano collecting ashes from the expedition.

The team was heartbroken when they saw the first fire. In addition to the shock of seeing the forest and biodiversity disappear in front of one’s eyes, the team was faced with the reality of widespread support for Bolsonaro in the small towns in the middle of what they described as the agribusiness green deserts. “There were billboards on the roads. Bolsonaro’s government meant some sort of free for all in these places. Get all the land you can get,” Mundano explained.

Fake News and Criminalization

Caetano Scannavino is one of the founders of Projeto Saúde e Alegria, a 30-year-old organization working in the center of the Brazilian Amazon Forest, focusing on rural areas of the state of Pará. One of Saúde e Alegria’s best known projects is a floating hospital that served as a model for the government’s primary health assistance program for rural communities. Today there are more than 60 publicly-owned floating hospitals in the Brazilian Amazon, modeled after Saúde e Alegria’s.

Despite being mostly known for their community health projects, Saúde e Alegria develops a range of activities to support territorial development that increases the quality of life for all in the region. Their primary objective is to support local socioeconomic models that preserve the forest. They are also a circus, with arts, parody and play being the core of their work method.

A clown named Curumim arriving at Aldeia Solimoes, in the Amazon, in one of Saúde e Alegria hospital boats.
A clown named Curumim arriving at Aldeia Solimoes, in the Amazon, in one of Saúde e Alegria hospital boats.

Scanavino has been a long-time supporter of the Amazon Fires. For two decades now Saúde e Alegria has supported local campaigns led by the state firefighters to prevent fires, including the training of local brigades in the area of the Tapajós River in the Amazon. “I’ve seen large fires in our region. In 2011, in 2019 … and we’ve always made ourselves available to support,” he said.

When a brigade started in Alter do Chao, the town where Scanavino lives, he saw that Saúde e Alegria could help and train new brigade members — always working alongside the state firefighters. “In 2019, there was a larger fire in Alter, the kind that happens every five years or so,” he said. “Because Alter do Chão is a very popular tourist destination, the fires of 2019 caused great commotion. There were donations, the volunteer brigades helped a lot.”

Around that time (two days before Bolsonaro arrived in the state for his first presidential official visit), Saúde e Alegria was stormed by armed police. “They took computers, our entire bookkeeping, iPads, GPS, contracts from as long as 10 years ago,” Scanavino explained. “When we asked why, they said a volunteer fire brigade member who had worked for Saúde e Alegria was being arrested.” Scanavino did not understand. Why would they take his entire organization’s files because someone who worked for them in the past had an issue?

João Romano was one of the fire brigade members arrested that morning. He was charged with setting fire to the forest as part of a brigade to raise funds for their own use and to make a profit. “I started to assemble this volunteer brigade here in Alter do Chão to attend to these occurrences back in 2017,” Romano explained. Since the largest city is 16 miles from Alter, and they didn’t have an effective fire department, João and his group ended up becoming a team for all types of emergencies, from oil spill cleaning to rescuing animals in homes.

“We started our volunteer brigade with a few people in 2017,” Romano explained. “Then in 2019 we expanded.” So he and his friends began fundraising.

“We started fighting the fires with shirts over our faces,” João said. “It’s a very dangerous job. We understood that the least we needed was to have adequate equipment.” Initially, Saúde e Alegria provided support for training, and eventually the group partnered with World Wildlife Fund Brasil, who offered a small grant and additional technical support.

They didn’t know that their fundraising campaign would end up being a huge problem. The day the police stormed Saúde e Alegria’s headquarters, Scanavino was landing in Brazil’s capital for a meeting in the National Congress. He learned later in the day that the volunteer firefighters brigade led by João was being accused of setting fire to the forest in order to raise money for themselves. Scanavino was shocked at the accusations. He knew this could not be true.

Scanavino’s immediate response was to gather Congress representatives from the environmental caucus, since he was in Brasilia, and give a press conference. His strategy was not confrontational. “I knew it was important that the truth was exposed, so my strategy was to ask for more investigation, more police, because I knew if there was a serious investigation, we were going to prove our innocence,” Scanavino explained.

The police unit leading the case accused the volunteer brigade of setting fire to the forest to receive funds from WWF with the support of Saúde e Alegria. Scanavino describes those days as the worst in a lot of people’s lives. Some of his friends were detained; he, his coworkers and their families were threatened at their homes and ridiculed on social media.

“Despite it all, I always knew that I could not fight polarization with more polarization,” Scanavino said. “We never responded to hate speech with more hate. Every journalist wanted to know my opinion on the police. I always told them I liked the police, ‘I want more police on the case’ I used to say.”

The case collapsed after the initial phase. The federal police joined in the investigations and proved that everyone was innocent. Saúde e Alegria’s computers and files were never returned.

Turning Death into Something Beautiful

After concluding the expedition during which he met with volunteer brigades in five Brazilian biomes plagued by fire, it was time for Mundano and his crew to start work in Brazil’s largest city and financial center. For the making of the “Ashes of the Forest” mural, Mundano drew inspiration from the celebrated Brazilian modernist painting “The Coffee Farm Worker,” by Candido Portinari.

Mendes and Mundano giving the last touches in the Mural paying homage to the volunteer brigades, 2021.
Mendes and Mundano give the Mural their final touches, paying tribute to the volunteer brigades in 2021.

“I did a lot of research,” Mundano explained. “That is the first painting I found with an obvious environmental critique. It has a Black male in the front. It is a clear social critique of the agribusiness at the time. The main character has a cut tree. I thought that was an opportunity to make a parallel with the current situation.”

The mural was painted over 10,000 feet. The wall was too large for the highest aerial platform. “It was heavy work, both physically and mentally,” Mundano recollected. “We were painting with remains of death. But after witnessing so much destruction during the expedition, the mural became something beautiful, to be celebrated — the work of these volunteer brigades who were putting their lives on the line to protect all of us.”

Vinicius Mendes couldn’t believe it when he saw his face on the mural in São Paulo. He explained that the face on the wall was not his, but a representation for all volunteer brigadistas, people that he loves and respects. “These people who leave their families to go put out the fires, who are not even recognized as a working category as per the Brazilian labor code.”

Vinicius Mendes, poses in front of the mural portraying him.
Vinicius Mendes poses before the mural depicting him.

Mundano’s greatest reward is to see one of his projects discussed in schools around the city. “I know there have been several teachers who turned my art into lessons, teaching about volunteer brigades, [the painter] Portinari, artivism, but also discussing deforestation.”

Mundano emphasizes that the project was made possible because of the support of many people and groups — from art organizations such as Parede Viva, to large conservation NGOs, such as WWF Brazil, Greenpeace Brazil, Be the Earth Foundation, Bem te Vi Diversidade, to the Secretary of Culture of the City of São Paulo.

“Once unveiled, the ‘Ashes of the Forest’ mural was in more than 400 media outlets,” Mundano said. “We got a four-minute-long story on prime time on Brazil’s largest TV channel. It was clear that journalists wanted to tell a good story. For the first time the volunteer brigades had the kind of representation they deserve to have.”

Mundano believes that art and activism are essential for fighting against structural racism and environmental justice. He often mentions the amazing reach of his projects to show how this has worked. “We really need all the tools at our disposal with the global and local challenges we face,” Mundano said.

The Road ahead for Volunteer Brigades

16 volunteer brigades were formed in 2019 to combat the increasing fire dangers. They come from four biomes. National Network of Volunteer Brigades. The organization is always looking for solutions to common problems, and tries to keep its structure as minimal as possible. It provides training for firefighters and maintains firefighting equipment.

In the end, the process that led to the mural also generated a fund for support of fire brigades during the 2021 season. With this, some brigades were enabled to purchase better equipment. A reforestation trust fund was also created to help restore ecosystems within the Atlantic Forest Biome. D’Elia hopes to release a feature documentary about the expedition and to keep raising support for the volunteer brigades in the future. “These people are basically working on their own, the fires are increasing, and they need continuous support,” he said.

Mundano, Mendes and D’Elia in front of the Mural in São Paulo
Mundano, Mendes and D’Elia in front of the Mural in São Paulo

According to Mendes, last year’s fire was stronger and more defiant than the previous year’s. “This is climate change, this is no joke,” he said. He described the volunteer brigade members as people who are passionate about nature and work in extremely unhealthy conditions. “We often get sick, physically and emotionally too. We know that there is only so much the government can do, and we end up putting gas and other resources from our pockets into fighting the fire, no matter the conditions.”

The National Network of Volunteer Brigades has a primary concern about the sustainability of volunteer brigades. According to D’Elia, the main obstacle to the long-term viability of these groups is the cost of maintenance. The lack of resources like fuel or adequate transportation for the firefighting — and difficulties in acquiring and maintaining equipment, tools and correct PPE — are among the challenges faced by the volunteer brigades.

Mendes is not optimistic when Mendes was asked about the future. “If climate change persists the way we think it will, it’s going to get harder and harder to control the fires,” he said. “This last year we were lucky, because we had a good amount of rain. But I’m afraid of the next dry season we have, because the fire is getting stronger. Also, with the fires in the Amazon, we fear we’ll have less water here.”

Volunteer firefighter “Rede Contra Fogo,” or “Network Against Fire.”
Volunteer firefighter “Rede Contra Fogo,” or “Network Against Fire.”

When asked what is the biggest challenge in this work, Mendes said “it’s the government.” It is very difficult to have your own government working against the environment. “We saw volunteer forest firefighter brigade members falsely accused — and arrested for — igniting a fire themselves to raise money to fight the fires. A brigade in the state of Minas Gerais was ordered to stay away from the fire,” Mendes explained.

Mendes said they have allies in a few civil societies organizations, actual civil society, and individuals who have become more concerned about the loss of forests and fires in recent years. He hopes to increase their exchange with the U.S. fire brigades one day. “I’m sure they have forest firefighting technologies we can learn from.” He also believes a lot of the change needs to come from basic environmental education. “We have a long way to go, but we need to keep adding to it,” he said.

Scanavino focuses his hopes on 2023 after the October 2022 presidential elections. “At this point, I’m really hoping this government will be in the past,” he said. “If I had to think of one good thing this government did, it was to unite the large and unequal non-profit sector in the Amazon. The field was very fragmented, and Bolsonaro made them all come together.” He believes activism is key for government accountability. “Unfortunately since Bolsonaro took power, we’re on the defensive. It’s all harm reduction.”

This article was written with the support Smoke Signal Monitor, a project by independent journalists that monitors the social environment crisis in Brazil since 2019.