‘It burned everything’: Fires surge on indigenous land in Brazil

A firefighter monitors a spot fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest, near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil

On Guató indigenous land, in Brazil’s western state of Matto Grosso do Sul, drought-worsened fires this year have burned through 90% of the tribe’s 11,000 hectares of territory, incinerating the crops and native plants they depend on.

“It burned everything overnight. We are without food and water, which became very dirty because of the fires,” Alessandra Guató, the indigenous group’s leader, told us by telephone.

“Without training and equipment, we had no way of saving anything. The fire came very close to the houses,” she said, noting that overstretched fire brigades stayed only one day, and left before the worst blaze hit.

Fires on indigenous land are surging in Brazil, according to an annual report published Wednesday by the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), a Catholic Church-linked organization that has worked with Brazil’s indigenous groups for decades.

The report, which includes data on fires from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), shows the damage extends well beyond the Amazon.

In 2019, a drought year and the first of the government of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, indigenous territories inside Brazil’s vast Pantanal wetlands recorded seven times more fires than in 2018, CIMI noted.

This year, fire has consumed 22% of the Pantanal system and affected every piece of indigenous land in the region, according to a LASA, the Laboratory for Environmental Satellite Applications at the University of Rio de Janeiro.

Nearly 40% of fires were on indigenous land in the Amazon, where more than 6,000 fires burned, a 67% increase from 2018, CIMI said.

But the Brazilian Cerrado savanna saw 9,500 fires in 2019, almost twice the number the year before, and the Pantanal was even more heavily affected.

Many of the fires, especially in forest areas, are set as part of a process of illegal land clearing to create more farmland, the CIMI report said.

Invaders often first cut and sell trees, then burn what remains to clear the land for pasture or farming, it said.

Antônio Eduardo Oliveira, executive secretary of CIMI, said in a telephone interview that Brazil’s government had allowed fires to “multiply” as it reduced inspections by environmental agencies such as Ibama, Brazil’s Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources.

Ibama, the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Defense did not respond to requests for comment on what they are doing to combat fires in indigenous lands.

Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has said he favors development of the Amazon and earlier this year unveiled a controversial bill to allow commercial mining, hydropower plants and oil and gas development on indigenous land.

Bolsonaro last month also denied the existence of fires in the Amazon rainforest, calling reports a “lie,” despite data produced by his own government showing thousands of fires surging across the region.

In the Pantanal, the Bolsonaro government’s messages on the need for development have “opened the gate” to more land-clearing fires, said Oliveira of CIMI.

On its official websitesite, the Ministry of Defense said military personnel are working to combat fires in the Pantanal in partnership with local agencies, including by using aircraft to pour water on the fires.

In 2019, Mato Grosso do Sul, a state that contains much of the Pantanal, recorded a 450% increase in fire spots in indigenous lands compared to the previous year.

“It is a terrible situation. The country loses a lot with this, Oliveira said. Now, “we need to try to recover something that took millennia to establish itself”.

On burned Guató land in the Pantanal, indigenous residents are now looking for donations of food and water, and trying to collect rice and bean seeds to restart farming, Alessandra Guató said.

Medicinal plants the community relies on also were destroyed in the fire, she said.

“We are trying to rebuild what is left,” she said. “It is a terrible situation.”

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