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.