Eye on the Amazon

Amazon Fires: Indigenous Peoples Mobilize to Save Their Territories, and the World Steps Up in Solidarity

The crisis is not over, but we also need to prevent the next emergency now

Destruction and dead animals found throughout indigenous lands of the Krahô Kanela people, in Tocantins state of Brazil. Photo credit: @Krahô Kanela people

"Here we live through the forest and the hunting of animals, but what is happening now with all this fire puts our survival at risk. The land is our mother, the mother of us all. Whether we live in the forest or in the city, we all depend on the land and the forest to survive. Ten years ago, the river did not dry up, but today it is because of the fires. It is a great sadness for us to see it all crumbling in front of us." Trajano Guajajara, chief of the Zutiu community

As the Amazon's dry season draws on, uncontained fires continue to rage across vast landscapes. It is estimated that in Brazil alone, nearly 3 million hectares – 11,500 square miles, or an area nearly as large as Belgium – have burned. Another 2 million hectares of Bolivia's forests have been lost.

Between January 1st and September 16th, Brazil's Space Research Agency (INPE) registered 122,878 fires set across the country, with roughly half of these burning in the Amazon. Representing a 52% increase over the 2018 fires to date, the devastation is far from over and is nearing the scale of Brazil's catastrophic 2010 burning season.

Tens of thousands of new blazes have been deliberately set in recent weeks, despite Bolsonaro's purported ban on fires, laying bare the scale of impunity behind this brazen criminal activity with illegal deforestation at its core. A recent report also shows how the vast majority of fires have affected recently razed forests, which were left to dry prior to being torched, presumably to clear the area for new agribusiness operations. Amazon deforestation – driven by Brazil's agribusiness sector – nearly doubled between August 2018 and 2019, setting the stage for today's crisis.

The Amazon fires have drawn worldwide concern and condemnation for good reason: they are a man-made disaster enabled by a brutal and backward president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose regime has slashed environmental protections, human rights standards, and the rule of law to benefit the very actors destroying the rainforest. This disaster also reveals the illegitimacy of Bolsonaro's agenda in Brazil. In a poll conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE) and the advocacy group Avaaz, fully 96% of Brazilians said Bolsonaro should crack down on – not encourage – Amazon deforestation.

Indigenous lands among the hardest hit

Meanwhile, Brazil's indigenous peoples are disproportionately suffering the impacts of today's infernos. According to a report from Brazil's Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), which draws on INPE data, there has been an 88% increase in fires on indigenous territories this year compared with 2018.

Between January and August 2019, there were 9,084 fires detected on 274 indigenous territories compared with 4,827 fires on 231 indigenous territories during the same period in 2018. In August alone there were 4,754 fires detected on indigenous lands, corresponding to 52.4% of this year's total, and representing a 133.5% spike over last year's numbers.

Fires recorded across the Amazon between August 1st and September 11th, 2019. Credit: INPE

The explosive rate at which fires are being set in indigenous territories this year outpaces the rate of fires set across Brazil as a whole, further demonstrating how the country's native minority continues to bear the brunt of the worst devastation occurring in the Amazon today. It is also another indictment of how Bolsonaro's anti-indigenous policy and rhetoric are playing out on the ground.

Interviewed by CIMI, leaders of the Krahô Kanela indigenous territory, in Tocantins state, report that about 95% of their territory was consumed by fire. The situation has worsened in recent weeks: 31 new blazes were recorded on indigenous land between September 1st and September 9th.

"We fought 22 km [13 miles] of fire, which reached 2 km [1 mile] from the village. They're not over yet. A very sad situation, destruction, and dead animals," said Wagner Krahô Kanela. Indigenous fire brigades from the Javaé, Karajá and Xerente indigenous communities traveled to Krahô Kanela land to help fight the blaze, which is now just seven miles from the village.

Around the world, people turn out in solidarity

Resistance to Bolsonaro and his destructive agenda is strong and growing in Brazil. Around the world, countless thousands have pledged to support this movement by demonstrating, donating, and taking personal and collective action where they live.

Given the clear connections between the Bolsonaro government's agenda and that of the worst actors within Brazilian agribusiness, supporters of the Amazon and its peoples can take meaningful action: We can encourage our leaders to put trade pressure on Brazil in key global markets, while continuing to campaign for global financial divestment from destructive industries and supporting boycotts of agricultural commodities linked to illegal deforestation, rights abuses, and runaway forest fires – including timber, beef, and leather. As consumers of these goods, we may be complicit in today's disaster. It is our duty to become informed about how to leverage our influence to make a difference.

The global community must stand in solidarity with Brazil's resistance at this critical moment. The Association of Brazil's Indigenous Peoples (APIB) has called for us to support their movement in tangible ways. "Just getting angry on social media is not enough to address the scale of Amazon destruction that we are witnessing," said Sônia Guajajara of APIB. "We need to stop this absurdity. We must get organized, get active, and join forces in defense of the Amazon and in defense of our future."

This week's Global Climate Strike provides an opportunity to make our voices heard as part of a rising movement to oppose Bolsonaro and challenge the corporations that are enabling his regime's rainforest destruction and human rights abuses. We are collectively facing a climate emergency of unprecedented proportions of which today's Amazon fires are a burning symbol. In response, we need to exercise our collective power to extinguish these flames and build a future where this can never happen again.

The response of Amazon Watch: both urgent and strategic

The immediate crisis of catastrophic fires across the Amazon is an urgent threat to the forest, indigenous peoples, and our global climate. The Amazon and its indigenous inhabitants are under assault, and Amazon Watch is working around the clock to respond, expand our advocacy work on behalf of our indigenous allies, and redirect funds to provide direct support for indigenous organizations and communities.

We have also been mobilizing to pressure the Brazilian government, focusing international media attention on the issue, targeting corporations financing Amazon destruction, and sending funds to partners in the region to support a range of critical need, including:

  • grassroots indigenous patrols in indigenous territories to repel illegal loggers and land invaders;
  • water and humanitarian provisions for fire-affected indigenous communities;
  • territorial monitoring and defense;
  • peaceful mobilizations in the region;
  • organization of emergency indigenous assemblies; and
  • direct support for threatened environmental and human rights defenders.

The current crisis is not the beginning of the assault on the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous guardians, and unfortunately, it will not be the last. Long before Brazil's current far-right government took power, local and global industrial interests – from agribusiness to mining, road building, and hydroelectric dam construction – set the stage for these fires, and they will not change their behavior unless they are pressured to do so.

Indigenous peoples have proven to be the best protectors of the Amazon, and with the power of international solidarity, they can halt today's crisis.

Learn more about our strategic work and vision here.
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