Major fires in Brazil in 2020

MAAP’s Amazon Fire Monitoring App is updated in real-time.

Cartography by Willie Shubert in collaboration with InfoAmazonia.org

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.”

Guajajara Indigenous man fighting fire in the Arariboia Indigenous Reserve in Maranhão state, in the Amazon Region. Image by: Erisvan Bone Guajajara/Mídia India for Mongabay.
Guajajara Indigenous man fighting fire in the Arariboia Indigenous Reserve in Maranhão state, in the Amazon Region. Image by Erisvan Bone Guajajara/Mídia India for Mongabay.

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.”

Indigenous Guajajara leader Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot dead in an ambush by loggers in the Amazon. He was one of the “Guardians of the Forest,” a group of Guajajara indigenous people that risks their lives fighting illegal logging in the Araribóia indigenous reserve. He posed for this picture on Jan 31, 2019. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay
“Indigenous Guajajara leader Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot dead in an ambush by loggers in the Amazon. He was one of the ‘Guardians of the Forest,’ a group of Guajajara indigenous people that risks their lives fighting illegal logging in the Araribóia indigenous reserve. He posed for this picture on Jan 31, 2019.” Image and caption by Karla Mendes/Mongabay.

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.”

Heat spots in areas with Prodes warnings (2017-2019). Area next to the borders of the Kaxarari Idigenous Land, in Labrea, Amazonas state. Taken 17 Aug, 2020. CREDIT: Christian Braga / Greenpeace
Fires next to the borders of the Kaxarari Indigenous Land, in Labrea, Amazonas state, Brazil. Taken 17 Aug, 2020. CREDIT: Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

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, NASAINPE 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.”

Additional reporting provided by Karla Mendes.

Banner Image of an uncontacted tribe in the Brazilian Amazon photographed in 2011. © Gleison Miranda/FUNAI.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough

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