Nearly six months after his detention in November 2019, João Romano still finds himself under house arrest. “Every night I have to be home at nine,” said the 27-year old. “And on the weekend, I’m not allowed to leave the house at all.”

Among the founders of a local volunteer forest fire fighting brigade, he was one of the first on the spot in the Alter do Châo Reserve after it began burning last September. The fires ravaged some 1,175 hectares (2,903 acres) of dry forest there, during a period when the eyes of the world were focused on extensive fires all across the Brazilian Amazon.

After weeks of praise for the brigade, the story took a sudden, Kafkaesque turn on November 26. That’s when police arrested Romano and three fellow brigadistas for allegedly starting the fire at the reserve in Santarém municipality, Pará state, with the aim of attracting funding from international environmental groups.

“The police stormed in at 6.30 AM,” Romano recalled. “I was shocked, of course, but remained surprisingly calm. Looking back, I think [that was] because I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. In jail, they shaved our heads, as if we were already guilty. Apart from that, we were treated well. The biggest problem for me was the food, as I’m vegetarian.”

Romano and his fellow volunteer firefighters stayed in detention for three days. Around that time, Mongabay acquired police arresting documents revealing what lawyers said was “unfounded” and flimsy evidence. In fact, Pará’s public prosecutor ordered the police to redo their investigation, as it deemed the evidence against the volunteers too thin for prosecution. But now, as long as the inquiry continues, Romano remains under house arrest.

The founding of the brigade

Originally from Sâo Paolo, Romano tired of the noise and pace of the big city. One day in 2016, he got on his motorcycle and left. He stayed in Chapada dos Veadeiros for a time, before visiting a friend in Alter do Châo, where he has been since 2017.

Today, he lives with his girlfriend and two young daughters in a cabin in a dense patch of rainforest a few miles from town. The forest is hot and humid even at night. The only “noise” there is a nonstop choir of crickets. Electricity is solar-only. The fridge is a wooden box sealed with gauze.

“A friend in Veadeiros introduced me to the idea of the voluntary fire brigade, which is very common in countries like the U.S. and Australia,” he told Mongabay. “Shortly after I arrived, a nearby cabin took fire, which felt like a sign. That’s when we started the brigade.”

The brigade coordinated their activities in close cooperation with the Santarém fire department, 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. The volunteers took training courses, obtained first aid diplomas, and set up an early warning system. Whenever there was a local emergency, they would immediately inform the fire department.

“The [forest] fires in September were bigger than the year before,” Romano remembered. “But our approach was the same. We warned Santarém, got in early to help people leave and tried to prevent the flames from spreading until the [entire] fire brigade arrived the next morning.”

The blaze lasted four days. In its wake, friends, family and others donated money to the volunteer brigade to buy equipment and help establish similar initiatives elsewhere.

Everything seemed fine. Until November 26. Today, Romano is the sole suspect who has stayed on in Alter do Châo.

“I understand [why] the others left,” he said. “They were scared. I stayed. Where would I go? I live here. My family lives here. But we have cooperated fully with the investigation and given them everything they asked for. I’m confident justice will prevail.”

With the investigation ongoing, Romano proved reluctant to talk about anything other than his side of the story. His girlfriend was a bit more outspoken: “I think it’s a warning, an attempt to scare anyone who wishes to protect the forest.”

Mongabay sought comment from the Santarém police, asking who is currently under investigation for the September fire, and whether there are any other suspects beside the brigadistas. As of the time of this story’s publication, the police had not responded.

Lack of evidence

On the same day Joao was arrested, a civil police unit raided the Santarém headquarters of Projeto Saúde & Alegria (the Project for Health & Happiness; PSA). Founded in 1987, it employs about 60 people, making it one the biggest NGOs in Pará.

The police “were fully armed,” said PSA coordinator Caetano Scanavinno. “They confiscated some 8,000 documents and eight computers. By the end of December, after the police had copied everything, we got back most, but not all documents. We are still waiting for four computers.”

According to the Santarém police, PSA is the mastermind behind the voluntary fire brigade’s alleged plot to attract foreign funding through arson.

However, “there is no official link between us and the brigade,” asserted Scanavinno. “We know them; of course we do. Alter do Châo is a small town. Some of them have done some freelance work for us. And we support them. We think it is a great initiative. But they are not on our payroll. We do not tell them what to do.”

Despite the thousands of documents and computers seized, the police have made no allegations. But according to critics, they have generated a local atmosphere of fear. Scanavinno refuses to discuss anything related to the case in public or by phone: “I feel they will use the slightest misstep to shut us down,” he told Mongabay.

PSA mainly works in health and sustainable development in the Amazon’s Tapajós River basin. However, the organization’s main public faces, Caetano and his brother Eugenio, both live in Alter do Chão, where last year they successfully organized local opposition against a proposal to reduce legal protections for the coastal region between Alter do Chão and Santarém.

“Since 2003, that [area] has been protected as an Área de Proteção Ambiental (PAP),” Scanavinno explained. “This means you are allowed to construct [buildings], yet 80% of the original vegetation must remain. The [defeated] proposal aimed to redefine the region as an urban area, which means none of the vegetation needs to be preserved. Just imagine how much that’s worth in terms of property development!”

Other motives, other suspects?

Surrounded by water and forest, Alter do Chão has rapidly become a tourism hotspot, with the number of visitors swelling to around 200,000 last year. Land and real estate values have skyrocketed — as have pressures to cut down the resort’s surrounding forest.

According to local sources, the community is strongly divided: on one side there are rich well established families who want to develop beachfront hotels and condos. On the other are ecotourism businesses and residents who stand against deforestation. In addition, property developers in Santarém and farther afield have developed keen interest in Alter do Chão properties.

Still, local police have so far reportedly failed to investigate lucrative real estate prices as a motive for the 2019 fires, even though Pará’s state prosecutor in November publicly stated that, since 2015, the main cause of environmental degradation and deforestation in Alter do Chão has been “land invasion, illegal occupation and real estate speculation.”

Santarém’s mayor Nelio Aguiar seems to share that view. On December 1, 2019, Reporter Brasil published an audiotape on which Aguiar told Pará Governor Helder Barbalho that the land where the wildfire took place was an “area of land invaders” that had “police behind them.”

People in Alter do Chão have strong opinions as to who might be behind the fires, and have a motive for setting them, though they whisper names in fear of intimidation: many told Mongabay they highly suspect local land speculators, offering as a possible example a former civil police officer already found guilty of illegally occupying and deforesting land east of Alter do Chão and a fugitive since his sentencing.

Considering the millions in real estate profits potentially at stake, many people in Alter do Chão are connecting the dots and asking themselves if Brazil’s infamous militias, often populated by current and retired police, have reached the Amazon Delta region and may be involved there in land grabbing and deforestation using arson.

Add to all this President Jair Bolsonaro’s bill (Lei Nº 13.967), now in Congress, to grant amnesty to any soldier or policeman who kills in the line of duty, and it becomes clear why many locals are reluctant to talk.

“With Bolsonaro the whole climate has changed,” said Scanavinno. “In the past, people like [presidents] Dilma and Temer said they cared about the Amazon, only to turn their backs and exploit it. The difference with Bolsonaro is that he is open about it. He has weakened institutions and regulations. He has awarded land grabbing. He has created a climate in which people feel they can take whatever they want. Alter do Chão is no different.”

With tensions rising, and forecasts for a very dry year in parts of the Amazon, fears are high that fires in 2020, along with the potential for violence, may surpass 2019.

Published: Mongabay 20/ 05/ 2020