What On Earth?

Amazonian Soil Stops Fire and Sets Limits to the Flames

Close-Up: Inflaming

Smoke from space. Credit: NASA and ESA.

It is August 19, 2019, 3:00 p.m. in São Paulo, Brazil. You are walking in the centre of one of the most populated cities in the world. 21 million people living in strictly socially designed areas that are more or less exposed to trash, smog, acid rains, pollution, open air dumping. The centre of São Paulo conjures at once the ruined greatness of a modern giant as well as the very image of its collapse: hundreds of bodies looking for shelter on the pavement whilst gangs of police officers peruse the streets to repress, jail and hurt these very sleeping bodies, as if sleeping was yet another luxury reserved to those who could only dream inside towers. It is now 3:15 p.m. and you are walking in front of the Copan Building, Niemeyer's signature housing project, sinuously curving on the horizon. The edifice is the greatest structure made of reinforced concrete in the country: 115 metre-high housing around 5000 people. The Copan Building embodies the emblematic modernism that marked the 1960s in Brazil, while standing today as an unique example of a self-organised vertical neighbourhood. Back in the 1950s, the Copan Building’s original publicity campaign promised that the enterprise would bring about “showers of dollars”. Uncannily, it seems that the meteorological metaphor predicted a whole different kind of shower. 3:20 p.m. You are crossing the street with a friend when you notice something particular about the light that afternoon: a dark golden halo seems to fully cover the city centre. The sky is a thick mesh of dark, heavy clouds, making a sunny day suddenly feel like a late winter afternoon in any city far from the Equator. You find it beautiful for a while and wonder if it is only a pang of nostalgia for the country that you left or rather the usual pollution of a city you think you know well. You check the clock again: 3:33 p.m. The temperature drops and you realise that you did not come prepared for such a cold winter. You feel slightly disorientated, but wrapped in this strange sensation, you continue walking — it feels pleasant. 4:30 p.m. You take a taxi across town and use this time to make a phone call. Heavy traffic will make the trip thrice as long in a slow and steady flow. You knew this. A strange sensation settles in, as if the air was under more pressure than usual. A muffled silence seems to press against the taxi as if you were seeing the world from inside a cablecar gently passing through mountain ranges, here made cars, lakes, here made dead rivers, trees, here made entangled electric cables so intricately bound that they could well be tree branches. Dimly, faraway, you hear car horns. You try to concentrate on the call, but you can't find your words. You want to describe what you are sensing, but it does not seem to have a name, face nor quality. 5:45 p.m. You are late. You arrive for your meeting and sense a tense atmosphere, the receptionist is talking with someone on the phone: “did you see the smoke? It is absolutely freezing today”. You feel an urge to check your phone. You scroll and open twitter and see the first image: dark skies are hovering over the entire city, the very city that you have just driven through — only here they are much darker, much heavier than what you think you have witnessed. You scroll down and read: “thankfully this smoke has finally got to São Paulo. Here in Rondônia, (bordering Bolivia), we haven't been able to breathe for over 16 days”. You scroll further down and read: “These are dark days and gloomy nights. It seems like a science fiction film, but it isn't, it is the Brazil that 'we are building' ”. 7 p.m. Later in the evening it was national news. The next day, international news. Suddenly, the media scale of the event gives you the false impression that the world was watching the very place where you were standing. But was it? The gap between what was lived and what was being broadcasted seemed gigantic. You walk into a café and order a coffee while watching the alarming news. Standing at the counter, the waiter says: “This is fake news, as if the Amazon rainforest fires could really reach São Paulo. They would do everything to hurt Bolsonaro”. And you answer: “Well sir, it seems that over in Rondônia, Acre and Pará there have been fires for over 16 days and that many of these fires are criminal. The police has already intercepted WhatsApp groups of farmers who seem to have organised these fires and baptised them “O Dia do Fogo” (The Day of the Fire). They want to send a message to Bolsonaro and the agribusiness that he supports: that they are willing to work in their interests”. You pause for a second and hear yourself speak and that's when you feel that it is you who has gone mad, conspiratorial. The waiter looks at you in silence and turns away to speak with a friend. You can't find your words and leave. It seems “the world” is pretending to appear revolted and to praise the Amazon forest, whilst it seems that they are only “looking” because the fires have reached one of the globe’s most massive megalopolises. The smoke was a messenger, an unwanted alarm, a migratory current. If it had not reached São Paulo, we would perhaps never really know. Meanwhile, fires in Angola, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo were burning kilometres of wild forests, and despite the fact that they are not comparable events, the landmass of forests being burnt for large-scale plantations are. So what are we really watching? The Amazon or rather at São Paulo? Once the modern giant is scared by an event happening 2.236 kilometres away from it, it is as if suddenly one finally realised that the Earth was only one. 9 p.m. You arrive at a friend's flat on the 16th floor of the Copan Building. You are listening to music together with a shifting group of passers-by. It seems like we are only together to share a few moments of silence. It seems difficult for everyone to speak about what is happening outside: “Can you believe it?”. We look across the horizon,still tainted by smoke, and a friend points out to you: “You see that mountain over there? That is the Pico de Jaraguá where a community of Guarani Itakupe still live today”. 11 p.m. You rest assured that one day, a future historian will write about today as yet another turning point of the catastrophic cascade-effects of the early decades of the 21st century. You remember the opening of Ridley Scott's “Blade Runner”: “Los Angeles 2019”. The only error in the message is geographic.

It is September 26th. You arrive late for a conference around the Amazon rainforest fires. The conference is taking place inside Lisbon's National Museum of Ethnology, where is displayed, in an underground and locked basement, one of the most intriguing collections from an indigenous tribe living in what we call Brazil — a name given after the main resource that was extracted from those lands circa 1500, the Brazilwood. The collection attests to the transformation of artefacts produced by this tribe through the increasing contact with tourism. Handwoven bracelets made from palms begin to feature the flags of countries such as the United States, Germany, France. Amulets are largely reproduced and their materials seem to be increasingly tinted using colors one could not produce from the seed of a plant. Upstairs from this collection, the conference is taking place: a forest agronomist, an anthropologist and a historian debate on the fires in the Amazon rainforest. As you enter the conference you hear: “Have you ever heard of rectangular fires?”. The agronomist is showing aerial views of the Brazilian Amazon fires while gently zooming into the images. His point being that while wildfires develop without fixed borders or limits, the fires in Northern Brazil have clear, rectangle-shaped borders. He continues his analysis by showing that these fires could only have been set inside properties, illegally placed inside the tropical forest, for cattle grazing and soy production. After setting “their properties” on fire, the fires spread until they reach the very limit of the property in a straight line. The humid forest stops the fire and sets limits to the flames. “Amazonian soil”, they explain, “is the worse soil for cattle grazing and soy plantations. Is it absolutely unreasonable to invest in cattle and soy in this humid and difficult environment”. The only possible explanation: military control and sovereignty over the Amazonian territory, the long-lasting obsession of the military in their continuing mission to fully colonise, “civilise” and tame any other possibility of life outside its vigilant and false sense of control. After taking these notes, you look up and see a slide displaying the following article: “The Hamburger Connection: How Central America's Forests Become North American Hamburgers”. What on Earth? 

Ana Vaz for COYOTE (performed in the Waning Crescent Moon Phase of the 9th Contour Biennale: Coltan as Cotton, Mechelen, Belgium, October 2019: https://www.contour9.be/en/contour/event/108/)