AMAZON – Amazon fires are burning this year within the protected lands inhabited by isolated uncontacted Indigenous peoples. The fires, largely illegal and intentionally set by land grabbers, ranchers and farmers, are often utilized as a deforestation tool — clearing land for timber, beef and soy production. The fires can deprive these forest peoples of their homes and subsistence livelihoods, forcing them off their ancestral lands.
Uncontacted Indigenous groups, which may be more accurately described as “Indigenous people in voluntary isolation” still exist in all nine of Amazonia’s countries, but are most concentrated in Brazil, where at least one hundred Indigenous groups are known to live with no regular outside contact.
According to Survival International’s (Survival) senior researcher Sarah Shenker, Survival has been receiving reports of fires from contacted Indigenous people in territories neighboring these uncontacted groups.
“We get updates regularly from [contacted] Indigenous people by WhatsApp and other means,” Shenker said. “They’re telling us about the fires, where the fires are, how bad they are, and whether or not they’ve managed to put them out.”
Survival can verify these alerts using apps that draw upon satellite data from Brazil’s National Space Agency (INPE) and NASA.
Uncontacted Indigenous people are among the most vulnerable to deforestation and fires, as they rely entirely on the forest to meet their needs for food, medicine and shelter. Forest destruction can also push them from their territories into forced contact with outsiders. This means exposure to diseases for which they have little to no immunity.
“All of the isolated peoples are under threat by the fire,” Atenor Vaz, an expert in isolated Indigenous groups told Mongabay contributor Shanna Hanbury in an interview. “Whenever there are fires, there are more sightings of [roaming] isolated groups on river banks and close to other Indigenous villages.”
“Using NASA satellite data, [we] have constantly shown that territories with isolated indigenous peoples are among those more impacted by the forest fires,” said Gustavo Faleiros, editor of InfoAmazonia and a Mongrabay contributor.
According to Survival International, four uncontacted groups face particularly serious threats from fires this year.
The first are the uncontacted Awá people who live on Bananal Island, the largest river-bound island in the world, located at the confluence of the Javaés and Araguaia rivers in Tocantins state, Brazil. Last year, 80% of the island’s forest burned. Today, more than 1,000 cattle graze on the island, which is a mosaic of indigenous territories and protected areas. This year, fires have been reported in some of the remaining forests.
Another group threatened by fires is the uncontacted Awá of Maranhão state in the Arariboia Indigenous Reserve which, according to Survival, has been heavily invaded by illegal loggers. Reports of fires have come from the Indigenous Guajajara who protect the Arariboia Reserve for both their own community and for their uncontacted neighbors.
“We fight to protect this forest, and many of us have been killed doing so, but the invaders keep coming,” Tainaky Tenetehar, an Indigenous Guajajara Guardian said in a statement released by Survival. “They have damaged the forest so much in recent years that their fires are now much bigger, and more serious, than before, as the forest is so dry and vulnerable. The loggers must be evicted — only then can the uncontacted Awá survive and thrive.”
Fires have been detected within the Uru Eu Wau Wau Indigenous Territory in Rondônia state, where two uncontacted tribes are known to live, and in the Ituna Itatá Territory in Pará state.
The Ituna Itatá Reserve, inhabited solely by isolated Indigenous groups, was the most deforested Indigenous territory in 2019 according to InfoAmazonia and Survival. More than 1,300 hectares (3,212 acres) of forest were destroyed in the first four months of 2020, a 60% increase compared to the same time period last year.
“Now the constant fire seems to prove there are coordinated invasions and efforts to dominate the [Ituna Itatá] territory,” Faleiros said.
Even when the fires do not push Indigenous people from their homes, the secondary effects can do great harm. In Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, for example, which have seen massive fires this year, deforestation has combined with the fires to cause increased erosion from denuded lands, with excess organic matter and ash washed into tributaries, rivers and lakes, where it causes bacteria to multiply out of control, contaminating drinking water.
“When the rains start, probably at the end of October, [conditions] will get worse as more ash will be drained into the lakes and little rivers, and then to the major ones,” biologist Débora Calheiros, who has studied Pantanal river and flood ecology for 30 years, told contributor Fernanda Wenzel in a recent Mongabay interview. “The governments have to act with urgency to deliver drinkable water and chlorine to those [impacted] communities.”
Fires also have consequences for the plants and animals that forest-dwelling people rely on. Indigenous diets rely heavily on fish for protein, but water contaminated with ash may already be adversely impacting freshwater fisheries, both in the Pantanal and in the Amazon, although little research has been done linking fires and fisheries.
“Their culture is entirely based on the forest. If it catches on fire, there is no one to help — there’s no salary, no fridge,” Vaz said. “Food sovereignty is drastically reduced.”
What the specific impacts of fire are on aquatic biodiversity is hard to say. Because fires largely follow deforestation, it is difficult to distinguish between the harmful effects of land clearing, fire, mining and overfishing.
“I think there’s no question that [deforestation] has impacted certain seed and fruit eating fishes. They’re much less common now than they used to be. But again, there’s been a lot of overfishing as well.… So, it’s hard to parse that out,” Michael Goulding told Mongabay; he is an aquatic ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and has worked in the Amazon for more than forty years.
“Deforestation turns these otherwise clear water rivers relatively turbid,” Goulding said. “And a lot of aquatic biodiversity there has evolved to live in relatively sediment-free rivers. So, we still don’t know what the impact of that is.”
Between the beginning of May and October 27, 2020, there have been 2,118 major fires in Brazil, according to the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP). Many of these have burned in fully protected Conservation Units and Indigenous territories — almost all were illegal, with many lit by land grabbers as a means of turning forested public lands into private pasture and croplands.
Fighting these fires is the responsibility of the Brazilian government, which has faltered in that duty under the government of President Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, which in the past successfully fought Amazon fires, has faced debilitating budget cuts and personnel shakeups under Bolsonaro, as well as logistical difficulties due to the pandemic.
Just last week, IBAMA’s firefighting work was suspended for several days, due to a lack of funding. Bolsonaro, for the second year in a row, sent the Army in to fight Amazon fires and enforce environmental protections, a job for which, experts say, the military is ill-suited.
Increasingly, Indigenous peoples have taken matters into their own hands, in many cases, forming Indigenous firefighting squads, which, Shenker said, “are working around the clock to put out these fires so that they can keep the forest standing for their own families, of course, because they depend on that forest for their survival, and for their uncontacted relatives who are the most vulnerable peoples on the planet.”
A group of Guajajara, for example, fought fires in the Arariboia Indigenous Reserve, where 41 hot spots were detected by satellite in the last 30 days, according to Indigenous leader Olimpio Iwyramu Guajajara, who watched the fires burn on a mountain close to his home in the southern part of the reserve.
“It has a huge impact [on our livelihood]. There are also cultural impacts, directly or indirectly. The trees are being destroyed; the trees that have honey used to [throw] our honey party. The hunts that are going to die,” he told Mongabay in a phone interview. “If we have a 10-year drought on the entire planet, most will die. Don’t the guys think about it?”
The Guajajara don’t only fight fires; they also battle against illegal loggers. Olimpio leads the “Guardians of the Forest,” a group of 120 Indigenous Guajajara who risk their lives fighting illegal logging in the Arariboia territory. On November 1, the Guardians will pay tribute to Paulo Paulino Guajajara, a Guardian who was murdered a year ago allegedly by illegal loggers in an ambush inside the reserve.
Despite the pandemic, Olimpio says that illegal loggers keep stealing timber from Arariboia. But he is hopeful that the rest of the world will soon join forces with the Guardians to preserve the forest. “We are defending our land not only for the Guajarjara and the Awá, but for the whole world,” he said. “All the planet needs… the Amazon rainforest.”
Fires are set every year during the Amazon’s dry season and largely follow a pattern of recent deforestation. However, since Bolsonaro’s rise to power in January 2020, his pro-agribusiness rhetoric has encouraged land grabbers and ranchers to move more aggressively into protected areas and Indigenous territories, where they use fire as a tool to clear the land. Sometimes, these intentionally set fires escape into standing forests. Of all the major fires detected in the Amazon this year by non-profit MAAP, more than 40% were in standing forests.
“They think they can get away with literally setting fire to uncontacted tribes’ territories with impunity,” Shenker said, “so that they can then use that territory to make money.”
In comments to the United Nations in September, Bolsonaro said that fires occur mostly in the same places, “where peasants and Indians burn their fields in already deforested areas.” He provided no evidence for this claim. Analysis by MAAP, NASA, INPE and others show widespread fires throughout the Brazilian Amazon, occurring especially in areas where land grabbers are active and illegal deforestation is rife.
“That is clearly a racist remark that is part of his whole armor of actions against Indigenous peoples,” Shenker said, referring to Bolsonaro’s comments. “He has waged war against Indigenous peoples. This is an ongoing genocide.”
“These fires are not just a risk for the future,” she added. “It’s something happening right now.”