- More than 1,000 Indigenous people volunteer as firefighters throughout Brazil, protecting 14 million hectares (35 million acres) of Indigenous lands.
- However, in a year of record fires, the very continuity of the Indigenous fire brigades is at risk, with the government failing to provide the coordination, recognition, funding or support that they need.
- Fire-prevention measures that were supposed to start in April, before the dry season, were instead delayed to July, once the burning had already begun, with the COVID-19 pandemic one of the factors blamed for the delay.
- Insiders in the federal agencies overseeing environmental protection and Indigenous affairs also point to an official culture of neglect of Indigenous communities, which in many cases has forced Indigenous firefighters to work unpaid.
Age-old Indigenous knowledge has guided the sustainable management of wilderness areas around the world: how to preserve the land, anticipating what will happen throughout the year, and adapting to how nature and fire behave. Arson and climate change, however, have imposed a new scenario on the native peoples of Brazil, leading them to organize to prevent and combat fires that now systematically raze biomes of global importance such as the Amazon, the Cerrado and the Pantanal.
The Federal Brigades Program was created in 2013 by IBAMA and Funai, the national agencies for environmental protection and Indigenous affairs, respectively. It’s a fire management initiative that fuses traditional Indigenous knowledge with technical and financial support from the two agencies.
The aim is to prevent fires flaring up during the dry season, and fight them when they do occur. This year, there are 41 brigades operating across the country under this program, with more than 1,000 Indigenous members, according to Funai data.
However, budget cuts and delays in their scheduled activities — due to institutional disorder and the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the anti-Indigenous policies of President Jair Bolsonaro — have frustrated their progress and worsened the fire situation this season.
That’s the conclusion of various sources Mongabay spoke to, many of whom requested anonymity for fear of reprisals or sanctions. During the reporting of this story, the head of Prevfogo, the IBAMA department in charge of the program, was replaced after five years in office.
The brigades’ very continuity is at risk, even as the occurrence of fires spreads across Brazil, raising concern and pressure for change from both within the country and abroad.
Delays in 2020 cause huge losses
The fire-prevention measures planned for this year weren’t carried out in time. The brigades began to mobilize three months later than usual, which affected the fire preparedness of several Indigenous territories throughout Brazil.
This has had very serious ramifications, said Pedro Paulo Xerente, who manages a brigade in the state of Tocantins, on the Xerente Indigenous Territory. He’s the first Indigenous fire brigade manager in the country, and his experience serves as a model for the whole program.
While prevention and management operations used to start in April, this year they only began in July, when the fires had already flared up. The measures are specific to each biome and include controlled use of fire itself to create protective barriers.
“We have a lot of fire this year and the budget cuts have compromised our work. We started very late. This is having serious consequences,” Pedro Paulo said. “The problem of fires in Brazil will only be effectively solved when prevention is strengthened.”
In an interview granted two days before his dismissal, the now former head of IBAMA’s National Center for Forest Fire Prevention and Combat (Prevfogo), Gabriel Zacharias, blamed the delayed start of fire-prevention operations mainly on the pandemic. “We started a little late because of COVID-19, a new reality for everyone. We were highly concerned about preventing federal public agents from taking the disease into Indigenous lands,” Zacharias said.
Brigade members were formally hired only in mid-June, because of “administrative issues that have already been solved,” he said. According to Zacharias, “this should not be a problem for the next years.” The current cooperation agreement between IBAMA and Funai, signed in 2019, will be in force until 2024.
According to Pedro Paulo, Brazil is now witnessing the results of this delay: “Fires lasting several days in a row, without protective barriers. We need to combat fire face-to-face. It’s all very violent now; everything has been compromised,” he said.
Budget cuts cast doubts on the program’s continuity
By the end of July, IBAMA had spent only 20% of its budget for fire prevention and control measures. Of the 35.5 million reais ($6.3 million) it had allocated for these activities, only 6.8 million reais ($1.2 million) had been used.
Zacharias said lower spending in the first half of the year is “normal,” although neither he nor IBAMA’s press office provided any official data.
“I guarantee that we haven’t been short of money to work. It’s usually very little [spending] in the first half. We hire a brigade starting in June. Fifty percent of all my budget go to wages. All the expensive operations that include per diems, aircraft, helicopters happen in the second half of the year,” he said.
But it was precisely the preventive measures planned for April to June that were compromised, leading to severe damage during the dry season. Each brigade member is paid approximately 1,500 reais ($268) a month by IBAMA.
IBAMA and Funai sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said they fear the end of the Federal Brigade Program due to the cuts every year to Brazil’s environment budget and the stated policies of the Bolsonaro administration, which has promised to reduce enforcement and firefighting operations and espoused the persecution of Indigenous peoples.
The money spent on hiring brigade members, including per diems, dropped from 23.7 million reais in 2019 to 9.9 million reais this year (from $4.2 million to $1.8 million) — a 58% decrease. The total budget for forest fire prevention and control in federal areas was also reduced for the second consecutive year. It stood at 53.8 million reais ($9.6 million) in 2018 but dropped to 45.5 million reais ($8.1 million) in 2019 and 38.6 million reais ($6.9 million) this year — a decline of almost 30% in two years.
Inspection operations have also been compromised: a 20% drop in the 2020 budget, a 52% drop in environmental fines imposed in the first half of this year, and an estimated 16% decline in funding for 2021. The cuts are comprehensive.
Meanwhile, the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, is having its worst year in terms of the number and scale of fires since records began in 1998. In the first eight months of this year, fires razed 1.86 million hectares (4.6 million acres) — an area 15 times the size of Rio de Janeiro — more than half of it in August, according to data from INPE, the national space research institute. About 17% of the entire Pantanal has been lost so far.
In the Amazon rainforest, more than 29,000 fire outbreaks were recorded in August alone. Between January and August, there were 110% more fires recorded than in the same period in 2019. The fires increased by 64% over the average of the past 10 years. The Cerrado grasslands have also suffered, with the state of Mato Grosso do Sul declaring an emergency situation, for example.
Pedro Paulo Xerente, however, said he’s optimistic about the Indigenous brigades. “If the government has any wisdom, a program with the magnitude of the Indigenous brigades will never end. In addition to providing huge environmental benefits, our work is a social project that generates income, local development, knowledge and education. I believe that this work tends to continue,” he said.
According to Funai, the Federal Brigades directly protect about 14 million hectares (35 million acres) of Indigenous lands and 153,000 hectares (378,000 acres) of quilombola (slave descendant) territories. But Funai employees say the program isn’t highly regarded within the agency and that Indigenous people lack coordination, organization, funding and support.
Pedro Paulo , who also has a team prepared to operate anywhere in Brazil, said he had to break barriers and overcome prejudice to get where he is now, with lots of “sacrifice and dedication.” He said he hopes to see the work continue, adding that the program must be maintained throughout the year. After November, everyone in the brigades is dismissed, and the brigades themselves are demobilized until the following year, when recruitment starts again.
“It’s a shameful thing. The community does a magnificent and voluntary job of preserving Indigenous lands because it’s linked to life for us, it’s where we get our livelihood, medicine, everything. But lack of commitment to us is enormous,” Pedro Paulo said.
Ideally, environmental education and prevention actions should be maintained throughout the year, with people paid to prevent the fires starting up in the second half of the year, he said. “This investment is crucial to solving the problem. They dismiss everyone and then start in a hurry again in the following year,” he said.
Despite the difficulties, the brigades’ work reestablishes the traditional knowledge of Indigenous elders, who are consulted on how fire used to be employed in the past. Maps and GPS technology are then brought into the mix, creating a hybrid knowledge-driven system adopted all over the country.
In Tocantins, volunteer brigades are mobilizing
Close to Tocantins’ Araguaia National Park, the Krahô-Kanela Indigenous Territory’s 8,100 hectares (20,000 acres) were hit hard by fire in 2019. In that Cerrado-Amazon transition zone as well as in other similar areas, fire is a constant.
Even with their readiness to respond to these circumstances, the Indigenous brigades, supported by their partners, were unable to control the burning.
The situation has improved a little this year, said Wagner Katamy Krahô-Kanela, a brigade member and the head of the Indigenous association that lives in the reserve. This has allowed the brigade to help in other areas such as the 304,000-hectare (751,000-acre) Krahôlandia Indigenous Territory, closer to the border with Maranhão state, which has also suffered the impacts of fires this year.
The 30 or so members of Wagner Katamy’s brigade work on a voluntary basis and are not paid by IBAMA. They receive specific contributions for logistics, food and equipment, and seek local partners and other Indigenous organizations, such as the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), to help them carry out their work. Funai said it doesn’t know the total number of volunteer brigades.
Wagner Katamy said transportation and fuel are major problems, since the brigade only has two motorbikes and can’t walk in small groups due to the risk of attack by wildlife such as jaguars.
Brigade members’ security goes largely neglected and virtually ignored by the agencies for both official and volunteer brigades, which receive some support but no pay, according to IBAMA sources.
Monitoring the territory is important not only for fire prevention but also for recording all kinds of environmental crimes such as encroachment, illegal logging, deforestation and others. The brigades end up permanently protecting Indigenous lands as a result of years of coordinated work.
Because of COVID-19, however, 20 new brigades have not been trained, and this year’s teams are the same as last year’s. “Training is important, especially for young people who are joining now to understand what working with fire is like,” Wagner Katamy said.
Regularization of the lands of the Krahô-Kanela is yet another example of the government’s general neglect of Indigenous people. The community was displaced from the Mata Alagada area, 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the state capital Palmas, for a brewery run by the Anheuser-Busch-owned Ambev unit in a case that dragged on until the 2000s.
“I grew up in the middle of this struggle involving my grandparents, parents, uncles,” Wagner Katamy said. “It was very sad because we had no place to live, to plant, to fish. There was nothing. When I arrived in this territory as a teenager, all I wanted to do was defend it.”
Volunteer brigades play a direct role in that defense. This year, the Indigenous people were able to fly over the territory for the first time and identify potential threats and what to protect.
“That’s why we have to fight for our territory, for our mother, which is the land, the water and the forest,” Wagner Katamy said. “We can’t give up; we must teach children and young people to look after it. Without land, there is no health, there is no life, there is nothing.”
Banner image of firefighters working in the Xingu Indigenous Territory in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state. Image by Vinícius Mendonça/IBAMA.
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