- Over half of Maranhão’s primary forest (around 220 hectares) was destroyed.
- Over 300 firefighters were called in to what has been called one of the biggest fire combat operations in the history of Brazil.
- The state environmental agency estimates longterm damage to soil quality, greater susceptibility to erosion, and a change in biological dynamics — all of which raise the risk of extinction of rare species present in the region.
Two months after the first isolated fires were identified in Terra Indígena Arariboia, in the state of Maranhão, the trail of destruction is still visible.
Although the fire was controlled, over half of primary forest (around 220 hectares) was destroyed, threatening the lives and livelihoods of more than 12,000 Guajajara people and 80 nomads of Awa-Guajá, one of the last uncontacted —and among the most threatened — tribes in the Amazon. Currently, there are only 300 Awa-Guajá individuals living in the region.
Experts from Ibama, the Brazilian environmental agency, say the long period of drought contributed to the spreading of the fire throughout the region. However, they add, the cause of the disaster has little to do with the state of the environment. Representatives of various indigenous communities and the Guajajaras denounce the involvement of illegal loggers in the tragedy and say the fire was a crime, triggered in retaliation to the work of the “Guardians” — a group of local indigenous men and women who aim to combat illegal logging by volunteer forest monitoring. Over the last four years, the Guardians were able to significantly reduce illegal logging in the area, and the Guajajaras believe this led to the recent tension in Arariboia.
Rosimeire Diniz from the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), a religious NGO that has supported Arariboia tribes for over four decades by collecting and disseminating data on violence against tribes, says that conflicts between indigenous communities and loggers in the region have been going on for decades. There is no serious policing against the illegal exploitation of wood, she says. Such illegal activity would go almost unnoticed if it wasn’t for the constant resistance by the indigenous people.
“Every time people get together to claim and fight for their rights, conflicts begin,” explained Diniz, “and usually they are very violent.”
Ibama confirmed the accusations after its own inspectors were attacked by an armed group while they were combating the fire last month. The head of the inspection department, Roberto Cabral, told TV Globo: “these are criminals who are stealing wood… And are willing to kill to keep doing their illegal activity.”
The fire: No action for a long time
It was only after the incident involving the Ibama supervisors that there was effective action to put out the fire, according to the locals. Over 300 firefighters were called in to what has been called one of the biggest fire combat operations in the history of Brazil.
“The first signs were identified by the indigenous groups in the middle of September, but the lack of attention lead the fire to spread faster,” said Rosimeire from CIMI.
Last month, the government of Maranhão declared a state of emergency in 11 other indigenous lands that were also being affected by the flames. Besides Arariboia, the situation extended to indigenous lands Geralda Toco Preto, Canabrava Guajajara, Governador, Krikati, Lagoa Comprida, Bacurizinho, Urucu, Juruá, Porquinhos and Kanela. The line of fire spread beyond 325 kilometers into the forest during the most critical period of the tragedy.
Just as before, the Guardians were on hand to fight the disaster. According to Ibama, their knowledge of the area has been helping the firefighters, so director Marilene Ramos made a commitment to embrace the Guardians and add 60 local indigenous firefighters. The Guajajara are one of the most active communities in Maranhão, with a population of around 23,000.
“We want to expand the indigenous involvement in the program. They are present here in the territory, every day, and they know how these criminals operate. So we want to work together and commit to indigenous leaders, incorporating the Guardians into our ongoing supervisory work,” stated Ramos during her visit to Maranhão.
Maranhão: not safe for indigenous peoples
According to Greenpeace, indigenous communities in the state of Maranhão are under constant threat. On September 23, the Território Indígena Ka’apor issued a public letter warning that a new offensive against the indigenous population would take place. In retaliation to the surveillance carried out by the native population, loggers and ranchers were threatening to start a fire on the outskirts of the indigenous territories.
According to Ka’apor, from October 1, three stations that had been closed by the Guardians were reopened by loggers who were now being escorted by gunmen, loggers’ private guards.
In 2014, according to the Violence against Indigenous Peoples Report, published by CIMI, the Ka’apor were subject to four murders and 19 attempted murders. The federal police promised to investigate the cases, but no arrests have yet been made.
Since at least 2008, indigenous communities living throughout Maranhão have asked authorities to curb illegal logging and deforestation in the region.
“When you see the violence in the region and the number of conflicts happening in these areas, it is obvious that the government action is not enough,” said Rosimeire. “Usually, only punctual actions are taken, allowing the crimes to occur again, just moments after the inspection teams exit the areas.”
A history of fires
More than 186.000 square meters of Amazon forest were destroyed in the last 26 years in Maranhão, according to the Deforestation Monitoring Project in the Legal Amazon (PRODES) and the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). The state had more than 60% of all its forest cover destroyed.
The state environmental agency estimates longterm damage to soil quality, greater susceptibility to erosion, and a change in biological dynamics — all of which raise the risk of extinction of rare species present in the region. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Maranhão ecoregion contains the most extensive and most structurally complex mangroves in Brazil, home to the scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber), wattled jacana (Jacana jacana), and manatee (Trichechus manatus), as well as many species of marine turtles.
“We now have to face not only the violence in the region, but we have to relearn how to survive without a big part of our land and the means we once had to survive,” said one of the Guajajara leaders, who asked not to be identified.