When Richard Pearshouse visited indigenous communities in the Brazilian Amazon in April to investigate illegal deforestation, he heard countless horrors of land grabbers directly threatening and intimidating people. One story, however, really stuck with the head of environment and crisis with Amnesty International: a 22-year-old mother who finally lulled her children to sleep despite the sound of nearby gunfire only to find herself suffering the same insomniac fate. She was so scared, she couldn’t sleep.
For the Amazon’s indigenous peoples, the destruction of their home is nothing new. It’s an unfortunate reality they’ve had to deal with since the Portuguese pillaged their lands in the 16th century. Now, under far-right racist maniac President Jair Bolsonaro, this devastation is building to a new fever pitch as the ongoing fires in the Amazon Rainforest show. And this inferno is almost certain to impact Brazil’s indigenous peoples in ways the rest of us can only imagine. Their home—literally—is on fire.
A number of groups representing the Amazonian indigenous peoples declared an environmental and humanitarian emergency on Thursday in an open letter. They are calling on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to the United Nations to take action as the violent fires threaten their people with what the letter calls “extinction.” They blame both Bolsonaro and Bolivian President Evo Morales, whose portion of the Amazon is also ablaze. Morales, at least, has authorized firefighters and firefighting aircraft to stop the fires, but the groups are denouncing the president for his failure to protect the indigenous people of Bolivia. Bolsnaro said on Friday he may mobilize the army to fight the fires.
These fires aren’t a surprise timing-wise. Every year around this time, the forest fires grow in intensity and severity as farmers prepare for the next harvest season. The dry season, or fire season, runs from August to February though fires can burn at any time in the region. Since January, the number of forest fires in Brazil has already increased by 84 percent compared to the same time frame last year.
“This is a bit scary because we are just in the beginning of the season,” Ane Alencar, the science director of Amazon Environmental Research Institute, who has been analyzing satellite imagery of the fires, told Earther.
“The deforestation that we’ve been able to document on demarcated indigenous lands has already started,” Pearshouse told Earther. “In the wet season, they were already intruding and cutting down forests in indigenous lands.”
While on-the-ground groups and individuals haven’t been able to confirm to Earther whether these ongoing flames have reached indigenous lands and villages, they have no doubt the raging fires—which have been burning for weeks as cattle ranchers illegally clear room for pastures to eventually sell the land to soy farmers—are disproportionately impacting the indigenous peoples who depend on the rainforest to survive.
Amnesty International wrote up its findings in an investigation earlier this year. The group met with 23 indigenous people from three territories—the Karipuna and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau in Rondônia state and the Arara in Pará state—who told the organization that their members had received death threats and that the nearby illegal logging felt “different” this year, as Pearshouse put it. Land-grabbers have been chainsawing trees closer to villages than in years past, tribal members said. The illegal activity typically reserved for the cover of night was taking place in daylight. What would’ve been two dozen people at most coming into indigenous lands in years past has exploded into hundreds, according to Amnesty International.
“What we are seeing in the burning season is the intensification of this,” Pearshouse said.
In at least one territory Amnesty International visited—the Karipuna, which sits in the northwestern portion of Brazil—the number of fires has increased by nearly fourfold since January this year compared to last year, according to the organization’s analysis of NASA data. Only 25 fires were set between January 1, 2018, to August 21, 2018. This year, there have already been 101. Pearshouse expects a similar pattern is happening across Brazilian indigenous territories.
Bolsonaro ran his presidential campaign promising to privatize the magnificent rainforest and hand it over to the agriculture and mining sectors. He’s been clear since the beginning that the needs of his indigenous constituents are the least of his priorities. Just days after taking office in January, Bolsonaro began to dismantle formal federal protections for indigenous communities, including eliminating FUNAI, Brazil’s bureau of indigenous affairs.
The consequences of all the president’s words and actions have reached a boiling point in recent weeks. Farmers coordinated a formal “Fire Day” last week to set the forest on fire in tandem throughout the southwestern state of Pará, home to the Arara that Amnesty International visited. Now, the forest has become a furnace.
The current blazes have formed what Janet Chernela, a professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, dubbed a “ring of fire” around indigenous territories, including the lands of the Kayapó and some 16 tribes that live in the Xingu Indigenous Park. This pattern isn’t unique to these recent fires. Farmers usually burn the fires this way, Chernela, who has worked with indigenous peoples in the basin, told Earther. Rather, the arsonists avoid these areas because of the indigenous people.
“All of those groups are keeping deforestation at bay by their very presence,” Chernela told Earther. “But they can only do so much. They need government support, and that government support is lacking.”
Many more fires are burning than usual this year. While fewer are burning in the lands governed by these tribes than the surrounding areas, some fires are still there—and the larger ones aren’t that far from their territories, as data from the NASA Fire Map shows. All that heat and smoke? It can’t be good for their health, and it certainly isn’t helping the greater ecosystem.
“Their very land is under threat. The air is polluted by big fire,” Chernela said. “They must have rainforest for game. They must have rivers for fish. And they must have forestland to grow [food] in small plots.”
This dependence on the forest is exactly why the fires can be so detrimental to the well-being of indigenous peoples. These communities don’t have supermarkets or pharmacies to go to. They have the Amazon. The forest serves as all that and more. It’s where they hunt, where they fish, where they gather materials to build their homes.
That’s why these tribes have learned to live in harmony with the ecosystem. If they take too much, the land runs out of gifts to give. Unfortunately, when the forest is on fire, the flames can engulf many of these resources too, leaving little behind for the people who need it—whether it’s wildlife to hunt or the small farms they’ve cultivated as part of the forest. Even lands untouched by the fire are impacted because the system is all connected. As the forest burns, more land dries out, worsening drought throughout the area. Plus, the loss of forest wrecks the whole rainforest system. Normally trees release water into the atmosphere, which releases it as rain. Without forest, clouds and rainfall patterns would shift, leading to further disruptions. Even in a natural system as extensive as the Amazon, recovery after an event like this will be tough.
“Any time you have a mass destruction of an area, you really change the functioning in an ecosystem and the way that all biodiversity depends on that ecosystem,” Lesley de Souza, a conservation biologist at the Field Museum in Chicago who has worked with Amazonian tribes for her research, told Earther. “When you’re living in that environment, you’re completely dependent on those resources, as well. You become a part of the system.”
De Souza has walked through the Amazon after a fire. She saw the bodies of animals who couldn’t escape, the ones that got left behind. There were snakes and lizards, as well as rodents too small to outrun the monstrous flames.
“It’s pretty devastating to walk through,” de Souza said. “It’s a war zone. You see the destruction of the land, the forest, but then all the things that lived there and are dependent on that.”
And that destruction impacts the guardians of the forest themselves. The loss of this land affects indigenous groups’ ability to survive. And they need to survive—not only because it’s their human right to a safe and prosperous life but because the forest depends on them.
Several studies and reports have shown that deforestation decreases in the lands formally held by indigenous groups. Part of that is cultural; many indigenous groups view plants and animals as people, Raffaella Fryer-Moreira, an anthropologist at University College London, explained to Earther. There’s no distinction between environmental rights and human rights for many of these communities.
“The forest fires we are witnessing today will be understood by many communities not only as an ecocide but as a genocide,” Fryer-Moreira said in an email.
Indigenous communities help protect the land and guard it against miners and loggers looking to destroy it even as the threat from private interests is growing more and more dangerous. More individuals die a year fighting to protect their environment than some soldiers die annually fighting wars, and Brazil has seen an outsized number of environmental defenders die protecting their communities and the forests they rely on.
The fires are just the latest manifestation of this battle between capitalist obsessions with growth versus nature and the very existence of indigenous groups and cultures. And the fate of the planet is in balance, too. The Amazon is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks.
“While it is clear that indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by this damage—in terms of immediacy and scale of impact, as well as an absence of alternative resources—we cannot ignore the fact that our species as a whole depends on the global environment,” said Fryer-Moreira. “This tragedy is not only a crisis for indigenous people but for all of us.”