Brazil, UN delay decision on aid for Amazon fires

News and Press Release
Originally published
By William Schomberg

BRASILIA, March 30 (Reuters) - Brazil and the United Nations held emergency talks on Monday about using international aid to fight huge fires in the northern Amazon, but officials delayed a decision on whether to request foreign aircraft.

Five U.N. disaster experts were due to travel on Tuesday to remote Roraima state, near Venezuela, where flames set by subsistence farmers have swept out of control over an area of savannah and forest the size of Lebanon.

A further three officials will remain in the capital, Brasilia. They will formally request extra water-carrying planes and helicopters from U.N. member nations if given the go-ahead from their colleagues in Roraima.

"There are countries willing to help," said U.N. team leader Carlos Monteiro Pereira. "There are military and civilian resources available."

The U.N. team arrived in Brazil on Sunday, despite rumblings from the country's military, which has long considered the Amazon a national security issue. Another U.N. group flew to Indonesia to advise on how to tackle a new outbreak of brush fires there.

Pereira said he believed the United Nations would soon offer similar technical help to the governments of Venezuela and Guyana where fires are also burning.

"We've not done it yet, but we're in a situation where we're close," he said.

Satellite images released on Monday by the Brazilian government showed a line of fire, approximately 140 miles (220 km) long, pushing into what officials said were transition areas between savannah and rainforest.

A drought blamed on the El Nino weather phenomenon and strong winds have made the fires the worst on record, officials say.

"We have no record of a fire on this scale in the Amazon. This fire marks a watershed for the region and we must reflect upon that," said Fernando Catao, who heads a Brazilian taskforce set up last week to handle offers of international aid.

He said government observers planned to fly over the fire front on Tuesday to gauge how far it had penetrated the rainforest, which is normally too humid to burn.

Firefighters leading a 1,700-strong team in Roraima have requested four water-carrying aircraft and eight helicopters in addition to the four helicopters currently in use.

Catao said representatives of a Canadian water-plane manufacturer were expected to arrive in Roraima on Tuesday to determine whether rivers in the drought-stricken region were full enough to allow the planes to collect water, he said.

Despite its enormous rainforests, Brazil has no specialized airborne firefighting equipment, and its few trained forest firefighters had never worked in the Amazon until now.

The United Nations was also due to provide Brazil with technical advice on how to prevent further disasters in the Amazon.

Scientists say large areas of the rainforest may be drying out because of El Nino, and they fear outbreaks of fire later this year, when the sub-equatorial dry season begins.

The head of the Brazilian government's Environment Institute said Brazil planned to detect areas of the forest most at risk from fire to draw up a risk management plan for the Amazon.

Eduardo Martins said local authorities would also be given help to educate poor subsistence farmers whose crude slash-and-burn techniques are often the source of forest fires, including those raging in Roraima.

"What we're seeing in Brazil is a new kind of catastrophe," he said. "We've never seen anything like this before."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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