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Wildfires Threaten Amazon Indians

March 17, 1998

BOA VISTA, Brazil (AP) _ A single river, dried to a stone’s throw across by drought: On Tuesday, that was all that stood between the rain forest sheltering a Stone Age people and the worst fire in the history of the northern Amazon.

Already, white smoke obscured the forest canopy and a village of the Yanomami tribe in the remote area. Barely two miles away, savanna brush crackled and burned under a fire that has raged out of control for three months.

If the flames jump the Mucajai River, firefighters warn, there is little to stop them from racing unchecked through the dry forest.

``There’s no telling what it will do,″ said Kleber Cerquinho, head of the Civil Defense bureau in the Brazilian state of Roraima. ``If it passes the river, it could burn a corridor straight through for hundreds of kilometers.″

A drought has shrunk the Mucajai, normally 150 yards wide, to a mere 60 yards. It’s a fragile line of defense in the face of the current threat.

``Normally you see 30, 40 points of fire during the burning season,″ Cerquinho said. ``Now there are thousands, and they won’t go out until it rains.″

That probably won’t be for a month, forecasters say. El Nino has turned away the normal rains _ only 1/25th of an inch has fallen all year, drying savanna and prairie to tinder and turning the annual brush-clearing fires by farmers and ranchers into an inferno.

So far, the fire has burned 1.5 million acres, or about 3 percent of Roraima state, Gov. Neudo Campos said. About one-fifth of the burned area was forest. There was only one confirmed fatality _ a man struck by a burning branch.

But the fire now is threatening the 25-million-acre reservation that is home to some 9,000 Yanomamis. Some 11,000 more live across the border in Venezuela.

A pre-literate tribe whose members still hunt and fish with bows and arrows, the Yanomami lived in virtual isolation for centuries. A gold rush in the 1980s brought a wave of illegal prospectors, and with them guns, disease and Western ways that eroded traditional values.

Now, their home itself is in danger.

``It looks threatening,″ said Marcos Vincius Pereira da Silva, head of the Federal Indian Bureau’s Operation Yanomami. ``You can’t see anything from the village, but it makes the Indians nervous.″

Da Silva believes the fire won’t pass the river, but that’s not the only danger. The Yanomami also have a tradition of clearing jungle by slash-and-burn technique.

``It’s even more of a threat, because you can’t explain to them why they shouldn’t do it,″ he said.

The Yanomami also have lost a vital link with Boa Vista, the state capital 2,100 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro. The heavy smoke closed the airport in this mining city of 150,000 for the second straight day Tuesday _ blocking aid flights carrying medicine for a malaria outbreak that has sickened 8 percent of the tribe.

In Boa Vista, government-sponsored ads on TV warn that setting fires is a crime. But the government admits it has neither the money nor the manpower to combat the fire in the fields and forests.

The governor’s office says Roraima needs 1,000 firefighters plus tractors, planes and helicopters. A special forest firefighting unit flown in from Rio de Janeiro estimated that 300 men were needed just in Apiau, a village 60 miles west of Boa Vista.

Today, the state has just 270 firefighters, mostly army soldiers, and little equipment. They have built 6,000 small reservoirs and dug wells to get water to fight the blaze.

About 12 percent of Brazil’s 2-million-square mile rain forest already has been razed by loggers, ranchers and farmers. Some scientists believe the destruction adds to greenhouse effect and causes global warming.

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