The Land Battle Behind the Fires in the Amazon

The Amazon fires could fuel the decades-long fight that indigenous people have waged for their land.

A tract of Amazon jungle is seen after a fire in Boca do Acre, Amazonas state, Brazil, on August 24, 2019.
Most of the fires in the Amazon are on private lands, but one-third are in environmentally protected or indigenous areas. (Bruno Kelly / Reuters)

Over the past week, as fires have sent up enough smoke to darken the skies of São Paulo, the world has rallied concern for the fate of the Amazon. At the G7 summit, leaders pledged support and $20 million to help fight the fires, only to have that amount rejected by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who claims that the Amazon belongs to Brazil and that the country’s “sovereignty” is under threat.

Fundamentally, this is a fight over who controls this land and how it will be treated. And for the indigenous people who live among the forests now burning, the fires are not only an acute crisis, but the vivid illustration of a long struggle for autonomy.

“The fires could have been set criminally, yes,” says Sônia Guajajara, one of the most well-known indigenous leaders in Brazil. Guajajara, like many other Brazilians, suspects that farmers and ranchers could have set the fires to clear the land, or burned indigenous territories to send a threatening message. But just as easily, she points out, in the dry season the fires could have been started by recklessness. “Right now any cigarette butt could turn into a fire,” she says.

Guajajara, the coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous People of Brazil, a prominent organization that lobbies for indigenous rights, blames the fires, in part, on weakened environmental protections and new roads, which have left the forest fragmented and even more vulnerable to flames. But she also blames Bolsonaro’s policies toward the 306,000 Amazonian indigenous people, whose 422 demarcated territories, according to the Instituto Socioambiental, which monitors indigenous populations, make up 23 percent of the Brazilian Amazon.

During his campaign, Bolsonaro promised to push indigenous people to “develop”— arguing that marking out indigenous territories for indigenous people only serves to separate them from the rest of the population, like “animals in a zoo.” During a televised national address Friday night, he repeated that sentiment. “To protect the Amazon, command and control enforcement actions are not enough. We need to give opportunity to all of this population so they can develop like the rest of the country,” he said.

Across Brazil—not just in the Amazon—the forest is being cleared and then burned to make room for farming and ranching. While Bolsonaro has even gone so far as to suggest that environmental nonprofits set the fires intentionally, defenders of the forest point to a more likely culprit—a “day of fire” announced by a group of farmers and ranchers in the Amazon. Although plenty of fires were burning before this moment, these enthusiasts intended to show Bolsonaro that they were “ready to work,” that is, ready to clear the land and make it productive for farming and ranching.

Sometimes forest land is slashed and burned by its owner: In the case of the current Amazonian fires, two-thirds of the fires started since January have been on private lands. But according to data from the Instituto Socioambiental, in the past month there were 3,500 fires in 148 indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon. “This is a pretty shocking statistic,” says Christian Poirier, the program director for Amazon Watch. He says that indigenous people are responding by “trying to expose what is happening on their territories and demanding that the government take action.”

Helena Palmquist, who handles many indigenous affairs for the public ministry of the Amazonian state of Pará, says, “I’ve been receiving many complaints in the past few months of many invasions on indigenous land.” These intrusions are happening, she adds, “even in areas that have been guaranteed in Brazilian law to be free from invasion.”

The Brazilian constitution offers protections to both the environment and indigenous peoples, but local enforcement agencies often fail to safeguard either. “Enforcement has essentially been paralyzed in the Bolsonaro administration,” Palmquist says. She says that indigenous people often complain to the police that they hear tractors or see smoke coming from the forest but that the federal police don’t seem to do anything. “The indigenous people are on the front lines. They are feeling the greatest impact from the destruction of the forest,” she told me.

“Indigenous people have always been protecting biodiversity and nature; we’ve always been working for this,” says Aldilo Amancio Caetano Kaba Munduruku, a representative of the Munduruku people, in the upper Tapajós River area of southern Pará state. “And today many white men are invading the territory of the Munduruku."

About 300 different indigenous groups exist in Brazil, and for decades many of them have fought for the demarcation of their lands. The Brazilian constitution describes indigenous territories as areas where indigenous people can live permanently—that is, where they can practice their cultures and traditions (which might include hunting or cutting down trees)—even though the land technically still belongs to the government. The multistep process to demarcate lands as indigenous territories can take years, and requires groups to demonstrate that the land is their ancestral territory. Many groups have been stuck in limbo in that process, waiting and hoping for the government to act. That has left groups vulnerable, and once Bolsonaro was elected, their hope for demarcation quickly dimmed.

During his campaign for president, Bolsonaro promised that under his presidency there would be no further demarcation of indigenous lands. Following through on that promise, within the first month of his presidency he transferred the responsibility for the demarcation of indigenous lands from the government’s indigenous agency, Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), to the ministry of agriculture, which is known to be tightly allied with the rural lobby of agribusiness interests. Poirier equates this act with “putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.” Although the Brazilian Congress and supreme court pushed the demarcation power back to FUNAI, the demarcation process “has essentially been frozen,” Poirier says.

Guajajara says, “As long as the state doesn’t demarcate, we are under threat of invasions and explorations, so demarcation is our minimum legal protection to avoid these things.”

Environmentalists also believe that demarcation is a key tool for environmental protection and for keeping the Amazon intact.

“The best mechanism for the protection of the forest is demarcation,” says Miguel Aparicio, a professor of ethnography who has been researching indigenous communities in the Amazon for 25 years. “Demarcated land has the lowest rates of deforestation, so there is nothing better than demarcating to guarantee the long life of the forest.” He says that the fires are being put out most quickly by residents when they are in indigenous territory, “because indigenous people are truly fixated on extinguishing the fires and protecting their land.” For him, more indigenous territory means more guardians of the forest and, during the dry season, more firefighters.

“For us to lose the forest and the animals in these fires … they are basically burning our rights and our way of life,” Guajajara says. “The fires are destroying where we get our food; they are damaging the rivers where we get our water; and they are impacting our rituals. So these burnings are immeasurable losses.”