Brazil– Brazilian rangers, firefighters and indigenous communities are battling against a wildfire that has blazed for two months and devastated some of the last Amazonian forest in the northern state of Maranhão, including part of the territory of an uncontacted tribe.
The fire which has spread across 100km at its peak is thought to be the biggest in Indian territory for decades and has prompted the local government to declare a state of emergency.
It comes amid rising tension between indigenous forest guardians and illegal loggers, prompting speculation among officials and environmentalists that the blaze may have been started deliberately.
According to Greenpeace, the fire has already consumed 45% of the 413,000-hectare (1m acre) Indigenous Territory of Arariboia, despite the efforts of 250 firefighters.
Worst affected are the 12,000 people from the Guajajara ethnic group, whose communities have been surrounded by flames. There are also fears for the approximately 80 members of the Awá-Guajá, an uncontacted tribe.
The state government has declared emergencies in the surrounding indigenous territories of the Geralda Toco Preto, Canabrava Guajajara, Governador, Krikati, Lagoa Comprida, Bacurizinho, Urucu, Juruá, Porquinhos and Canela. Local reports indicate that the Kaapor and Alto Turiaçu people have also been affected.
This is certainly the biggest fire we have seen in recent years, said Gabriel Zacharias, the fire combat coordinator of Ibama (Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources).
Almost all of Maranhãos forests have been cleared. Those that remain are on indigenous lands or in nature reserves. Loggers enter these areas illegally, cut down trees and then launder the timber for sale to the UK and other foreign markets.
Such degradation of the forest increases the vulnerability to fire. Efforts to prevent illegal logging have also raised tensions. Last week an Ibama ranger was shot in a confrontation with loggers during a fire combat operation. Indigenous forest guardians have also been involved in several confrontations.
The cause of the fire remains unknown. Zacharias said it was likely to have been either an arson revenge attack on indigenous groups who have fought back against loggers, or a fire set by loggers to clear a route to denser parts of the forest.
Funai (the National Indian Foundation) has reportedly earmarked 461,000 reais ($120,000) to fight the blaze, which they hope to get under control by next week.
Once they succeed, conservationists say the government needs to provide extra assistance to indigenous communities who have lost much of the forests that they depend upon.
It was shocking to note the enormous scale of the destruction and realise that the Guajajara and Awa-Guajá are the main victims of this tragedy, said Danicley de Aguiar, of Greenpeaces Amazon campaign.
In addition to the elimination of fire, the main concern is to ensure the survival of these people. Many areas were destroyed which means hunting will be more difficult, so the Indians will have serious difficulties to get food. Once the fire is controlled, it will be necessary for the government to closely monitor the situation.