Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples Have Long United Against Deforestation

The fires that spread swiftly across the Amazon in recent weeks drew international attention to a problem Indigenous Brazilians have been facing for years.
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Aerial view of deforestation in Nascentes da Serra do Cachimbo Biological Reserve in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, in the Amazon basin, on August 28, 2019.

Photo by Joao Laet/AFP

When rain started to fall on the flames overtaking the area around the small Amazonian town of Lábrea, Brazil, Marcos Apurinã let out a sigh.

The Indigenous leader knew the fires would continue to rage across the lower Amazon region in Brazil, known as the arc of deforestation, but the rain brought a brief moment of relief. He and the others in the Apurinã community in Lábrea and other surrounding towns had been fighting the fires for weeks.

“There have been huge fires in and around Indigenous territories,” said Apurinã from a meeting in Lábrea with representatives of 22 Indigenous peoples that took place over several days at the end of August. “They’ve destroyed the south of Amazonas state,” he said. “This region is seeing a lot of destruction because of the road and new paths being cleared so loggers can come in for wood, so they can ransack the forest.”

The fires currently ravaging the rainforest have largely been set by illegal miners, loggers, and farmers to quickly clear land. For the Apurinã and other Indigenous peoples living in the Amazon, it’s this deforestation that has long brought them together in an attempt to protect their territories, and the recent increase in fires across the region has made saving the rainforest more critical than ever.

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In the first eight months of this year, 90,501 fires were reported across Brazil, an increase of 71% over the same period last year, according to satellite data collected by the country’s National Space Research Institute (Inpe). More than half of those fires were in the Amazon—where nearly all of Brazil’s Indigenous territories are located—a more than 100% increase in fires in the region so far this year. In August alone, the biome experienced more than 30,000 fires, compared to the approximately 10,000 recorded in the same month in 2018.

Indigenous peoples, like the Apurinã, are on the front lines of fighting the fires razing their land at breakneck speed. They also find themselves up against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in a bout to put an end to politics and policies that have allowed the destruction of the Amazon to come close to what Brazilian climate scientist and Amazon expert Carlos Nobre calls a “tipping point,” in which deforestation surpassing 40% would mean there was no turning back to save the rainforest.

Bolsonaro has received harsh criticism since he took office in January for his rhetoric against both the environment and Indigenous peoples. During his campaign for presidency, the far-right politician and former army captain promised to put an end to the demarcation of Indigenous land, saying more than once that there would not be “one more centimeter” given to such a small portion of the population if he were to win the election.

As the fires ate large swaths of the rainforest, he continued his anti-Indigenous discourse at an Aug. 27 meeting with governors of states that are home to the Amazon, saying during a live broadcast that many of the protected Indigenous territories “are located strategically” and that someone had been “arranging” the demarcations without saying who that could be.

“Indians don’t have a political lobby; they don’t speak our language, but they have managed to get 14% of our national territory,” he continued.

Just over a month after being elected, Bolsonaro said that pro-environment and -Indigenous policies were getting in the way of the northern state of Roraima becoming the richest in the country. Later that same month, he compared Indigenous peoples in Brazil to zoo animals.

While Bolsonaro’s is not the first administration to neglect the problem of deforestation in the Amazon—in August 2005 there were approximately 64,000 fires registered in the region—“its contempt for the environment is particularly brazen,” Oliver Stuenkel, an associate professor of international relations at Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas Foundation, wrote in Foreign Affairs.

Since taking office, Bolsonaro has attempted to hand the demarcation of Indigenous territories, overseen by the National Indian Foundation (Funai), to the Ministry of Agriculture, a move blocked by the Supreme Court. Two bills that would amend the constitution and legally open Indigenous lands to farming and logging, as well as allow their mineral and hydro resources to be extracted, are also currently making their way through Congress. They were slated to be voted on in the lower house on Aug. 21, but Indigenous activists were able to stall the vote and convince their opposition to split up the two so they could be considered separately.

When the fires overtaking the Amazon made headlines around the world, Bolsonaro accused countries that criticized his response of interfering with Brazil’s sovereignty and said, without evidence to back up his statement, that environmental nonprofits must have started the fires in an attempt to call attention to their cause and ruin his and the country’s international reputation.

Bolsonaro made good on his campaign promise to cut the budget for Ibama, the arm of the Ministry of the Environment responsible for enforcing environmental regulations and fining those who break them, which has in turn imposed nearly 30% fewer fines since last year. The environmental watchdog also lost funding last month when both Germany and Norway pulled millions in funds donated annually to Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment to help curb deforestation in the Amazon.

For Apurinã, the weakening of Ibama and its counterpart, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), is particularly disheartening, but it hasn’t stopped him from carrying out the conservation work he does alongside other Indigenous leaders in the Amazon.

At the meeting in Lábrea, they all agreed that working in conjunction with environmental agencies like Ibama and ICMBio would be the best way to protect their land, pooling their resources and using both traditional methods and new technology to monitor their territories and report any wrongdoing they come across. What they want, after all, is the same thing. If they fight together, they might be strong enough to keep the Amazon alive.