- A large swath of rainforest has been cleared and was burned on the edge of the Wawi Indigenous Territory in the Brazilian Amazon.
- The fire is one of many being set to clear land for soy cultivation, much of it legally mandated, as demand for the crop sees growers push deeper into the rainforest and even into Indigenous and protected areas.
- Enforcement against forest destruction has been undermined at the federal level, thanks to budget cuts and loosened restrictions by the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro.
- The burning threatens to compound health problems in Indigenous communities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while the use of agrochemicals on the soy plantations poses longer-term hazards.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — The thick plumes of smoke stretched for miles across this slice of Brazil’s Mato Grosso state, blanketing the dense rainforest surrounding it. Soon, they drifted across the river and into the Wawi Indigenous Territory, a black cloud settling above the thatched rooftops of the Indigenous village of Khikatxi.
Just a couple months earlier, Indigenous people in the area had reported the whirring sound of chainsaws as the emerald canopy that covered some 900 hectares (2,223 acres) was razed, likely to make way for another soy plantation, local sources say. Then, in late June, thick smoke invaded Kamikia Kĩsêdjê’s village.
“The whole area was burning, right on the border with our territory,” said Kamikia, a filmmaker and photographer who lives in Khikatxi, home to about 600 Kĩsêdjê Indigenous people. “And it was so close to the riverbank, which really worried us. Here, we use the forest and the river for our survival.”
The torched area, nestled in the municipality of Querência, lies about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the village and just over a kilometer from the border of the Wawi territory, a sprawling 150,000-hectare (370,658-acre) area reserved for the exclusive use of the Kĩsêdjê and Tapayúna Indigenous people. They returned to their ancestral territory more than two decades ago, after a lengthy battle to have their land rights recognized.
Yet despite its proximity to the territory, the forest clearing was legal, authorized by the Mato Grosso environmental secretariat (SEMA). Landholders in the Amazon are legally permitted to deforest part of their property as long as they keep 80% of the forest intact. The region that was razed also fell within a disputed area that the Indigenous community wants recognized as part of its territory, although its petition for an extension has stalled.
“It’s a crime by the state — to allow this huge area to be deforested so close to the Indigenous territory,” said Ricardo Abad, an analyst at the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an NGO that defends environmental diversity and the rights of Indigenous and traditional people. “But there isn’t any law that directly prevents it.”
The destruction in Querência echoes the wider devastation taking place across the Brazilian Amazon, where deforestation hit a 14-year high in May. Experts are also bracing for an especially bad season of fires as Brazil grapples with its worst drought in more than 90 years, with burning expected to outpace the already higher-than-average rates seen over the last two years.
In Querência, where forest is increasingly giving way to soy, more than 36,000 deforestation alerts have been recorded so far this year by the Global Land Analysis and Discovery lab at the University of Maryland. Much of the forest loss has been concentrated along the border of the Wawi reserve.
“This was meant to be recognized as an Indigenous land,” Kamikia said. “But it’s turning into ash. It’s all being deforested for soy fields.”
Querência is no stranger to forest destruction, thanks to a long history of logging, cattle ranching and agriculture. Under pressure, the Kĩsêdjê and the Tapayúna Indigenous people were pushed off their land and into the adjacent Xingu Indigenous Park in the 1960s. They only returned to their ancestral territory in the 1990s, after Funai, the federal agency tasked with protecting Indigenous interests, recognized Wawi as a protected reserve.
Still, the assaults on Indigenous land rights have not stopped — and the threat from agriculture has crept closer.
Much of the forest destruction in recent years has been driven by soy’s frenzied, and often legal, expansion across Mato Grosso, Brazil’s agricultural powerhouse. The drive toward the crop has been especially visible in Querência, home to at least 320,000 hectares (about 791,000 acres) of soy fields, according to official estimates.
Increasingly, the soy has come directly at the expense of forest, local sources say. Traditionally, forest is often cleared to make way for pasture, which is eventually turned into soy fields when the land degrades. But in recent years, deforestation patterns are shifting, Abad said.
“Soy is becoming more attractive than cattle ranching,” he said. “So, more and more, we’ve seen this conversion directly from forest to soy.”
As the forest clearing has inched closer to the limits of the Wawi reserve, the Indigenous people who call this area home have come under increasing pressure. In 2018, the community moved its village deeper into the territory, as more forest was cleared nearby to make way for soy plantations, Kamikia said.
“We had to leave our village closer to the limits of the territory, because we were concerned about toxins, about pesticides in the soy plantations,” he said. “We were hearing planes overhead every day, throwing toxins from above.”
Last year, clandestine roads were carved illegally near the Wawi reserve, in a move that activists said was meant to open up access to the remote area for heavy machinery that could then raze larger plots of forest.
In a highly publicized operation led by the state last year, agents slapped embargoes on 700 hectares (1,730 acres) of land, confiscated tractors and imposed 4.2 million reais ($830,00) in fines on the perpetrators for deforesting too close to an Indigenous territory. Yet local sources said at the time that invaders returned soon after, picking up where they left off.
“They [the Indigenous people] already have a lot, a lot of land. Enough,” Roberto Zampieri, a local property owner who was fined during the raid, told reporters earlier this year. Zampieri, who is also a lawyer for local agribusiness, had his farm embargoed for not respecting rules that prohibit forest destruction and use of agrochemicals within “buffer zones” around Indigenous territories.
Still, the destruction at Wawi’s doorstep has continued into 2021. Local sources say the latest assault on the area was permitted by authorities because it was just over 1 km (0.6 mi) from the border of the reserve, deemed to be a safe enough distance. But rights activists disagree, insisting this is not enough to keep Indigenous people safe from the impacts of industrial agriculture.
A key concern is the impact of industrial agriculture on Rio das Pacas, a key source of water for the Indigenous community. Farmers often use pesticides and herbicides to grow and harvest soybeans, with these chemicals linked to environmental damage and even serious illnesses. With forest and topsoil removed, agricultural chemicals can flow into rivers and then travel into protected areas.
“When it rains, it brings this poison into the river and the river passes through our villages,” Kamikia said. “It’s the water we use to bathe, to prepare our food. And we worry that it could poison the fish and damage the river system.”
Activists say those looking to clear forest have been emboldened by a government that has reassured them that it’s on their side. President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly lashed out against environmental protections, calling them a barrier to development and vowing to dismantle them.
Brazilian lawmakers are now mulling a series of bills that threaten to weaken Indigenous land rights and open up protected reserves to miners and farmers. And last month, Brazil’s environmental minister was ousted amid an investigation into his involvement in an illegal logging export scheme.
“The signal the government is giving is that it’s not a problem to rob wood from Indigenous lands, to plant soy, to mine it illegally, to land-grab,” Abad said. “Because you might be granted the land title after. And the result is this — a rise in deforestation and aggression towards Indigenous people.”
Under Bolsonaro’s watch, federal agencies like IBAMA and ICMBio, tasked with enforcing environmental law, have also seen their budgets slashed. The federal government has deployed the military in several high-profile operations, yet environmentalists say lack of consistent enforcement has made it easier to clear swaths of Amazon rainforest.
In Mato Grosso, the state has stepped in to fill the vacuum left by federal agencies, helping rein in some of the forest destruction, environmentalists say. State environmental agencies have cracked down on illegal deforestation, imposing some 620 million reais ($122 million) in fines between January and May. Agents put 110,000 hectares (nearly 272,000 acres) under embargo, seized 116 tractors and arrested 18 people suspected to be involved in environmental crimes.
“They have stepped in to offset the lack of action from the federal agencies — and that’s been really important,” said Vinicius Silgueiro, territorial intelligence coordinator at the Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV), a nonprofit based in Cuiabá, the state capital. “If they hadn’t done that, the deforestation would certainly have been even worse.”
But critics say the state has also loosened licensing and made it easier to deforest within the limits of the law, pointing to cases like the one in Querência. Local sources say SEMA authorized the clearing despite its proximity to the Wawi reserve, although it is not clear if it also permitted the burning of the area. The secretariat did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s difficult to put an end to illegal deforestation by legalizing the deforestation,” Abad said. “It’s surreal, but this is the strategy that we’re seeing.”
Burning out of control
As industrial agriculture and associated forest destruction inch closer to protected areas, environmentalists say it has highlighted the need for better planning and stronger zoning regulations across the Amazon.
Although there are guidelines that require buffer areas around Indigenous lands and protected conservation units, these protective zones often create only a very thin layer of protection. In many cases these rules are not respected, and agricultural producers have fought back against attempts to expand buffer requirements. This is especially worrying to environmentalists during Brazil’s fire season, as blazes that often start on rural properties can easily spread out of control and engulf swaths of nearby protected areas.
“You are authorizing deforestation — and subsequently, burning — that reaches the very border of the Indigenous territory or the protected territory,” said Paulo Moutinho, senior scientist at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM). “Which means you don’t have a buffer or a firebreak that can shield it from the area that is going to be deforested.”
Agricultural producers frequently set fires to deforested lands to clear and prepare them for planting. These slash-and-burn blazes are technically only permitted during the rainy season, with authorization from the state secretariat for the environment.
From July until September, when fires are most at risk of growing out of control, agricultural burning is prohibited. But in reality, the ban is not always respected and enforcement is haphazard. And in Mato Grosso, the ban had an unintended consequence this year: fires surged in May and June as farmers scrambled to get ahead of it.
“We’ve seen a record number of fire hotspots primarily because of this,” Silgueiro said. “Whoever wanted to clear land legally — like this property in Querência — used fire before we entered in the prohibitive period.”
For Indigenous people, the huge fires that often blaze around their territories also pose a health risk in the form of respiratory disease, brought on by the smoke and ash. With COVID-19 still battering Brazil, the threat is even more critical this year, Moutinho said
“There is a higher risk that, for those infected with COVID, the symptoms will worsen when you have so much smoke pollution due to burning,” he said. “It’s a huge threat to Indigenous people — and to everyone in the region.”
Banner image: Fires burn on land deforested for agriculture near Wawi Indigenous Territory. Image by Kamikia Kĩsêdjê.
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.
Feedback: Use this form to send a message to the editor of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.