Brazil Calls In Shamans
To Fight Giant Amazon Fires

BRASILIA ( - Two shamans were summoned on Sunday to help fight the fires that have raged through the Amazon rainforest for two months and highlighted Brazil's lack of readiness to combat such disasters by conventional means.
"They are going to hold a ceremony inside the Yanomami reservation," said Marcos Ferreira, an official at the government's Indian Foundation (Funai).
"It is a ritual to repel the smoke and if possible, bring on rain."
Firefighters say only heavy rains can douse the fires, set by poor subsistence farmers, which have burned out of control in northern Roraima state and destroyed an area of highland savannah and virgin rainforest potentially as large as Lebanon.
The state government declared a state of calamity in January but its appeals for help from the federal government went largely ignored until the press and environmental pressure groups drew attention to the scope of the disaster in March.
Wherever reporters went, they found large swathes of savannah reduced to a blackened wasteland, pristine rainforest covered in a thick blanket of smoke and skeletal cattle huddling around depleted water holes.
Two weeks ago, 40 firemen were fighting the flames in a territory the size of Britain. By Sunday, that figure had swelled to 1,400, including volunteers from Argentina and Venezuela.
Significantly, the Brazilian government has now accepted help from the United Nations and the World Bank in a region whose sovereignty military officials have traditionally jealously guarded.
Officials from the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) first offered to send a team of experts to Brazil in November, saying they could share experience gained in helping to fight forest fires in Indonesia last year.
Despite its huge forests, Brazil has no aircraft equipped to carry water and has relied so far on four Argentine helicopters equipped with monsoon buckets. The few Brazilian firemen trained to combat forest fires had never set foot in the Amazon.
The team of U.N. experts is due in Brasilia on Sunday. A similar mission was heading back to Indonesia, where fires were reported to be spreading again in East Kalimantan, on the Indonesian side of Borneo island.
Environmentalists said the Indonesia blazes, which cast a thick pall of smoke over parts of Southeast Asia, would have catastrophic consequences for the area's wildlife and could have a negative impact on the climate.
They now fear the same is true of the Amazon, although nobody knows yet how widespread the ecological damage has been.
Respiratory illnesses have risen sharply in the state capital Boa Vista, where residents have been breathing smog for more than eight weeks, but no one has resorted to the surgical masks used by Indonesians last year.
Environmental experts say the large quantities of carbon monoxide being released into the atmosphere could cause long-term health problems and contribute to global warming.
Amid fears that the fires could spread to the southern Amazon when the dry season begins there in May, pressure is building for Brazil to work on a long-term solution to the problem such as an environmental protection team.
Meanwhile, the two elderly mystics, known as "xapuris," are expected to perform a rain ceremony similar to a Yanomami ritual in which shamans enter a hallucinogenic trance by snorting powdered bark of the Virola tree.
The Yanomami Indians see the smoke of the fires as a sign from spirits in the sky that epidemics are on the way.
The Yanomami have in the past blamed wild-cat gold diggers, known as "garimpeiros," for angering the spirits by robbing the earth of its minerals. The garimpeiros brought malaria into the reservation and polluted rivers with mercury used for mining.

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