Even when operations are carried out, it remains difficult to enforce environmental laws and hand out fines due to a pervasive lack of land titling in the region, according to the public official. In some cases, large agribusinesses rent land from smallholders, making it even more complex to establish accountability for forest clearing.

“When you don’t have the land documentation, you don’t have responsibility for the crime,” the official said.

Echoes of colonization

The rampant encroachment into protected areas has had a profound impact on the people who rely on this area for their livelihood. Logging, land-grabbing and mining activities in the northern part of the Triunfo do Xingu have already begun invading the Apyterewa indigenous land, which is home to the Parakanã people who rely on the forest for hunting and horticulture.

Echoing the bloody colonization that marked the settlement of this region more than a century ago, its deforestation has also sparked violent clashes in the Trincheira/Bacaja indigenous region, between the Xikrin people that call it home and invaders looking to illegally take over the protected land.

As more of the forest disappears in the Triunfo do Xingu region, pressure is also mounting on indigenous areas deeper in the Amazon that have largely been shielded from deforestation so far. With the widespread clearing slicing up the larger protected area into smaller fragments of forest, human rights advocates worry that it will become increasingly difficult for forest-dependent communities to survive within it.

“When we see destruction of the forest … what you’re seeing is the destruction of the ability of these people to continue their way of life,” said Christian Poirier, program director at Amazon Watch, a nonprofit that works to protect the rainforest and the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin. “They need to have enough forest in which they can practice traditional hunting and gathering and continue their nomadic lifestyle.”

Burned, cleared land in Triunfo do Xingu. Photo by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Small-scale traditional farmers in the area also say they are feeling the impact of deforestation, which they say is causing more erratic, unseasonal rains. This year, growers from the smallholder cooperative in the Xingu region saw their production of cocoa drop 45 percent. Output of Brazil nuts, meanwhile, plummeted to nearly zero in the prior season and remains about 95 percent lower than normal.

“The rain cycle is changing and that’s a huge concern for us — it has a big impact on the cooperative and the community,” said Raimundo Freire dos Santos, president of the Cooperativa Alternativa Mista dos Pequenos Produtores do Alto Xingu (Camppax), which uses agroforestry to sustainably grow jaborandi, a plant used in medicines and cosmetics, as well as cocoa and Brazil nuts alongside and within forests. Its membership ranges between 220 and 325 families, including indigenous and traditional people.

Another worry for dos Santos is that rampant deforestation will tarnish the region’s reputation, making it more difficult for small-scale farmers to sell their products. “In the future, people won’t want to buy cocoa or nuts from this region because of the deforestation,” dos Santos told Mongabay in the cooperative’s warehouse in São Félix do Xingu, where sacks of cocoa beans and dried jaborandi were stacked in neat towers.

Raimundo Freire dos Santos, president of the Cooperativa Alternativa Mista dos Pequenos Produtores do Alto Xingu (Camppax). Photo by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

There are also signs emerging that a few of those who are clearing land in the region are degrading the forest by using agro-toxins, some of which have been linked to serious health issues including cancer. There have been cases where these chemicals – normally used to aid the harvest of soybeans – were thrown on top of virgin forest in order to dry it out and make it easier to burn, according to Abad.

Deforestation is likely to have a far-reaching impact on the biodiversity of the region too, which lies in the broader Xingu ecological corridor — a diverse and important area of conservation in the Amazon. The Triunfo do Xingu area is home to countless species of plants and animals, many of which are are not well-suited to living in areas with higher temperatures and less vegetation. These include the oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus), a wild cat that resembles a miniature jaguar, as well as the Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris) – both species that are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Yet much of the region’s diversity remains unexplored, which means the effects of forest fires and deforestation are not yet fully understood, Poirier noted.

“The biodiversity is so vast and so localized,” he said. “It’s impossible to know how many species have been wiped out by these fires. But there’s a very good chance that we have been witnessing extinction in these flames.”


Banner image: A fire burns through rainforest in APA Triunfo do Xingu. Photo by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Data citation: Hansen, M.C., A. Krylov, A. Tyukavina, P.V. Potapov, S. Turubanova, B. Zutta, S. Ifo, B. Margono, F. Stolle, and R. Moore. 2016. Humid tropical forest disturbance alerts using Landsat data. Environmental Research Letters, 11 (3). Accessed through Global Forest Watch on [date]. www.globalforestwatch.org

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis
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