The way Marcelo Cwerner tells him, he was leading a boat trip last fall near the town of Alter do Chão, a popular place for tourists in the Brazilian Amazon, when he saw a large column of smoke coming out of the forest.
He took his cell phone to alert other members of the volunteer fire brigade in which he served, and discovered that they were already on their way.
Over the next four days, Cwerner transported dozens of firefighters in and out of the area until they finally extinguished the flames.
Despite the victory, the state police did not see him or the other volunteers as heroes.
Two months later, at dawn on November 26, the officers arrived home with a search warrant. His computer, cell phone and other items were confiscated and he was arrested on suspicion of causing the same fires he had helped put out.
The state police allege that Cwerner, 36, was part of a conspiracy to spread images of the fires with the aim of generating international sympathy and attracting donations for the brigade and the Health and Joy Project, an affiliated non-profit organization whose headquarters was also searched by the authorities.
Cwerner’s lawyers and the other three volunteer firefighters arrested that day say there is no evidence to support that theory and that the investigation is part of a major offensive against critics of government policies regarding the Amazon.
President Jair Bolsonaro took office in early 2019 with the promise of giving agribusinesses more opportunities to exploit in the world’s largest rainforest, which was already being cut at increasing rates for logging, mining, agriculture and grazing cattle
He has framed the issue as one of national sovereignty and showed contempt for strangers who point out that the forest serves the entire world as a massive sink for greenhouse gas emissions that heat the planet. Last summer, as fires started and French President Emmanuel Macron he asked the rich nations to help them put them outBolsonaro demanded an apology and rejected offers of international aid.
Part of their worst contempt has been reserved for non-governmental organizations, which often partner with indigenous communities to protect the Amazon.
During his campaign for president, he promised that such NGOs would not obtain funds from the government and that indigenous communities would not obtain “one centimeter” of protected land.
Although scientists have attributed the fires in the Amazon to efforts to clear the forest for agriculture and other uses, Bolsonaro has suggested that NGOs may be causing retaliatory fires for losing funds under their administration.
The morning after the police in the state of Pará stopped the brigade, as volunteer firefighters are known, Bolsonaro tweeted: “In October, he declared that many fires could be related to NGOs. Now the police in Pará are arresting some suspects for the crime. “
– In outubro I declared that very few sources of incidents could be linked to NGOs. Agora polícia paraense turns on some crime hair suspensions. pic.twitter.com/AT2SoBgNJV
– Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) November 27, 2019
That same day, federal prosecutors investigating the fires issued a press release stating that they found no evidence that “pointed to the participation of brigade members or civil society organizations.”
Two days after the firefighters were arrested, the same local judge who authorized the “preventive detention” of the brigade determined that it was no longer necessary and released the four men while the investigation continued.
They left prison with shaved heads holding hands and were welcomed by their families and television cameras.
Police in Pará say the evidence against firefighters includes wiretapping and a video that allegedly shows members of the brigade starting a fire.
The video, according to police, was discovered on YouTube, but since then it has been deleted and not shared with the media.
Aliança, a network of pro bono lawyers defending Cwerner and his colleagues, says no evidence has been proven.
Instituto Aqufero, a non-profit organization that oversees the fire brigade and whose budget was managed by Cwerner, told Brazilian news portal G1 that the video can be part of a training activity on “control burns,” which are used to contain forest fires.
Beto Vasconcelos, a former national secretary of justice who founded the defense network, said the case has implications far beyond the life of firefighters.
“If these arrests can happen to middle class white Brazilians, they can happen to anyone,” he said.
The conflict also includes the Brazilian branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature, better known as WWF. After the firefighters were released, Bolsonaro told reporters that actor Leonardo DiCaprio supplied the group with money “to set the Amazon on fire.”
Police say the payments that the Brazilian WWF made to the fire brigade were for photographs of the fires. But the WWF issued a statement saying the money was for fire fighting equipment.
WWF and DiCaprio also denied that the actor had made a donation. In an Instagram post, he said: “Although we deserve support, we don’t fund selected organizations.”
The government of the state of Pará issued a statement calling the investigation on firefighters an “isolated episode, which does not interrupt the conduct of hundreds of NGOs working together with the government of Pará.”
The NGOs, he added, “are fundamental for the preservation of forests in the State.”
As for Cwerner, he and his wife and their two young children left Alter do Chão and returned to São Paulo, where they are from. For now, he has hired a small team to keep his boat visit and hospitality company running while he manages it remotely.
Cwerner and his colleagues, who were forced to turn in their passports when they were released from jail, must appear in court every month in São Paulo and remain in their homes at night unless they are working.
The police have not said when they hope to conclude the investigation. Once that happens, prosecutors will decide whether to press charges against Cwerner and his colleagues, who could face up to five years in prison if they are found guilty of damaging the “environmental protection areas.”
As the case has been prolonged, he has tried to find comfort in the attention that has attracted the destruction of the Amazon.
“Now I understand that my mission has expanded,” he said.