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Behind
the
Fires

Gabriel Uchida

Fires in Brazilian Amazon

NASA satellites registered a record in the size and number of fires in Brazilian Amazon in 2019. Behind the fires, there is a bigger and more silence problem – deforestation. In just one year, almost 10,000 square kilometres of forest vanished in Brazil. In the Uru-eu-wau-wau territory, one of the most dangerous indigenous reserves in the Brazilian Amazon, a threatened indigenous group is struggling to survive and is trying to protect the forest. 

The massive fire scenes in the Amazon shocked the whole world in 2019. Actually, it is only a thin layer of a deeper problem. The forest burns every dry season. Besides that its aggressive destruction happens the whole year and it is dangerously increasing.

In September 2019, deforestation in the Amazon grew by about 96% compared to the same period last year

according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). 

Dangerously
increasing

Forest degradation

Forest degradation in the Amazons is the result of corruption, law enforcement failure and a list of illegal activities, especially logging, mining and land grabbing. The Federal Police Superintendent in the State of Amazonas, Alexandre Saraiva recently said that

An optimistic assumption is that 90% of the wood that leaves the Amazon is illegal

On the other hand, only 5% of environmental fines are paid according to the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Sources. In the middle of this chaotic scenario is the Uru-eu-wau-wau people, an indigenous group struggling to survive and to protect the forest.

Corruption,
law enforcement failure

The Endless War

The Uru-eu-wau-wau territory is in Rondônia, one of the 26 Brazilian states, and it is one of the most dangerous indigenous reserves in the Brazilian Amazon. The area is almost the size of Israel, and there are threats everywhere. Jaguars, evil spirits of the forest, uncontacted tribes, illegal loggers, miners, land grabbers and hunters. Once into the jungle, there is an enormous natural wealth but also severe menaces. 

In the midst of it all, there are the brave Uru-eu-wau-wau people. After surviving decades of wars and massacres, they are the guardians of the land. But that is not an easy task, mainly because they live in six small and remote villages and there are less than 200 people in total. On the other side, there are several hundreds of armed and organized invaders. 

 

To understand this complex scenario

The Outriders followed different sides and generations of the story.

BOREHÁ URU-EU-WAU-WAU

In the middle of the night screams and gunshots replaced the loud orchestra of animals and bugs. Explosions from rifles illuminated the complete darkness of the forest. Borehá was only 12 years old and understood nothing. It was supposed to be the special ceremony to celebrate her transition to adulthood, but none of that was part of the ritual. She felt a weird heavy smell. It was not roast meat, but the very first time she smelled metal lead. Her father was desperately telling her to run away into the woods. Borehá had never seen things like that. She was scared and just obeyed the order. On the way, she felt a few blows on her back, but the fear made her keep running. Even the bad spirit called Anhangá would not do something terrible like that. It seemed like a nightmare, but it was authentic. A group of rubber tappers invaded Boreha’s village and started killing everybody. Thanks to her father, she and another boy managed to survive, but her whole family died that night. 

The scars on her back do not let Borehá forget what happened. Anyway, she would remember about it even without the scars. Over 70 years have passed, and she still thinks of that night, especially now, when invaders are so close to her village and they have also threatened to kill her grandchildren. That’s why she always wakes up around 4 a.m. and stays alert. The kids are growing in the middle of the forest, and they are always happy and playing around. But they also hear the stories and news about the “tapunha”, which means “white men” in the Tupi-Guarani language. 

The village was supposed to be a small paradise with lots of fruits, fishes and other animals in the middle of the Amazon but the danger is always around. Respecting their tradition, they always do things collectively, and it does not matter if it is cooking, planting or discussing what to do with invaders. It is common sense that they want peace, but they are also ready to fight back, especially after they met land grabbers who said they would kill all the indigenous kids there.

Besides that invaders also planted the metal sign that demarcates the beginning of the indigenous territory and more recently they killed a dog and left a brand new bullet together with the animal in the only way to the village. These messages are all very clear. Unfortunately, the only uncertainty here is when the Uru-eu-wau-wau people are finally going to have peace.

 

BAHIRA URU-EU-WAU-WAU

Bahira is only 11 years old, but he’s already been trained to be the next “cacique” (leader). Since there are no teachers in the school at the Alto Jamari village where he lives, the kid is learning about the world mainly with his father, the chief Taroba.

The actual leader belongs to a generation who was born and raised deep into the forest with no contact with the white men. When that encounter happened in 1981, the Uru-eu-wau-wau life changed aggressively, and death became closer to them. Besides the battles with invaders, they were also introduced to new diseases for which they were not prepared to. In less than three years, the whole population was reduced from hundreds to around 60. Elders say that back then they had to bury several of their relatives and friends day by day. Bahira, of course, wasn’t there but he knows all the stories, and he fears it could happen again.

Many years have passed, but death is still surrounding the Uru-eu-wau-wau people. It happens because invaders are attacking their land in several areas, including nearby villages. The countryside of Rondônia is a lawless land and greed has no limits. These intruders want to steal their trees, minerals, animals and lives if necessary.

Bahira says he’s scared of that, but it doesn’t prevent him on going to surveillance patrols with the men from his tribe. He knows it’s his duty. The next leader is still a child, but he’s already a warrior. Walking for several hours in the middle of the forest carrying nothing but bows and arrows and knowing that the battle could be in just in front of you is a mission for real fighters.

„When I become the leader I’ll fight a lot until we remove all of these invaders from our land,” Bahira says.

AWAPY URU-EU-WAU-WAU

Awapy is a 27 years old indigenous man. He’s the son of Ariman, known as one of the greatest warriors of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people. Following his father’s path, he’s now in the frontline to protect their territory as responsible for the surveillance patrols against invaders.

„My father says our ancestors were massacred to protect our land, too many people died fighting here and we have to honour those who passed away,” Awapy says.

The actual battle doesn’t look easy for the Uru-eu-wau-wau warriors. They are outnumbered by literally hundreds of invaders in their territory. The invaders are land grabbers, miners, loggers and hunters. Besides that recent Federal Police operations found out the existence of organized criminal groups acting in the region and there were even lawyers, cops and politicians involved. As if it wasn’t unfair enough, in the middle of the forest, the fight is between pistols and rifles against indigenous bows and arrows.

„Recently I found gunshots in the trees near my village, and I know that was a message for me. I know they could invade our community and if it happens many people will die,” Awapy says.

There’s always a tension in the air at the Uru-eu-wau-wau land. Regular activities like hunting or fishing pose a risk because nobody knows what or who’s hidden in the forest. Going to the surrounding cities is also a problem.

„Once invaders offered me money to tell them when the police were coming, and I said no so they told me I would be burned to death if they met me in the city” Awapy explains.

According to Awapy, invasions have increased after Bolsonaro got elected. He says there are local politicians encouraging people to invade and steal their land and it’s all empowered by the president’s speeches.

Awapy adds: „White people should respect our territory because we are the first inhabitants of Brazil. Now they want our land because they have already destroyed everything around. We want peace.”

NEIDINHA

It does not matter who you ask, in every single indigenous village in Rondônia there’s a name everybody respects: Ivaneide Bandeira or “Neidinha”. She’s a 60 years old environmental activist fighting for the Amazon rainforest since the 1970s. Inside the Uru-eu-wau-wau territory, she’s also known as “tumãhea”, which means “mother” in Tupi-Kawahiva language. She started working there in 1983 and never stopped even after several death threats from invaders.

„Does any mother abandon her kids? The Uru-eu-wau-wau people and I will always be together because it’s bigger than work. It doesn’t matter what happens; we are always gonna be together. It is love,” Ivaneide Bandeira says.

Neidinha’s father was a rubber tapper, and her whole family lived in the forest. She grew up in nature and too far away from the city, so she had to be homeschooled by her mother. At that time, they only had a few magazines of American western stories, so that was her first reading.

Ivaneide Bandeira says: „Indigenous people were always killed in those magazines so I promised myself that I would protect them and change the story.”

 

Since childhood Neidinha was always a dreamer, she is both a delicate artist who likes painting and poetry but also a brave fighter who chases and arrests invaders. But it has consequences. Once illegal loggers welcomed her with dozens of gunshots. But nothing ever happened to her because Ivaneide says the spirits of the forest to protect her. She has already received so many death threats she can’t even recall them. For some months in the past, her family received the permanent escort of the Brazilian National Guard. It was only suspended because her two young daughters started being psychologically disturbed by having officials with machine guns following them all the time.

Neidinha knows how to survive, but she thinks this is the hardest and most dangerous moment for the indigenous people and the Amazon.

„Politicians are supporting and encouraging the invasion of protected areas like indigenous territories. People understand the official speech as a license to do illegal activities in the forest and all the environmental agencies are losing funds and strength. It’s a brilliant and organized attack against the Amazon Rainforest. If nothing changes soon, we’ll have almost no forest at all” Ivaneide Bandeira says.

FRANCISCO DA SILVA*

The minimum wage in Brazil is around 215 euros per month. But according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, 60% of the country’s workers (54 million people) receive salaries lower than in 2018. Now imagine the Amazon Rainforest and its vast green territory. One single truck carrying timber of Ipê tree is worth 65 thousand euros, and it takes only two or three people to work. Logging is an absurdly profitable business in Brazil, and the gains are even higher if it’s done illegally, which means not paying for taxes and documents.

Francisco is 40 years old and has four kids. He never went to college, and by the age of 11 he started working in the illegal gold mine with his father, who was killed by other miners one year later.

He grew up in mining and had his first son when he was only 16 years old. Francisco says his whole family worked in the illegal gold business, so he had no other options. However, ten years ago, he decided to change his life. The lack of education and opportunities took him to another outlaw activity in the forest: illegal logging.

„We are not destroying the Amazon because we only take a few trees in each area we go to. We need to work, and we are not lazy like the indigenous men” Francisco da Silva says.

Indeed, logging works differently than other activities like land grabbing or mining. Loggers usually look for specific species like Ipê, Mogno, Angelim, Favero, Cumaru, etc. In theory, they do not need every single tree they find, but it does not mean their work does not bring high impacts to the forest. To extract the wood trucks and tractors are necessary, and of course, they produce a path of destruction. Some animals disappear, and surrounding communities are also affected. In many cases, this activity is also related to corruption networks involving several parts like politicians, police and environmental agencies.

Another problem is those illegal loggers look for the “good trees” and it does not matter if they are inside of private properties, national parks or indigenous territories. The Uru-eu-wau-wau land is a huge green island in the middle of deforestation and endless cattle fields. It means the indigenous lands are the main target for loggers of that region.

Francisco da Silva: „Plantations and cattle need investments and take more time to produce a profit. Logging is easier and faster because the trees are already there. You go and take them.”

The complex Amazonian scenario of large territories, lack of human and economic resources and complete failure to enforce laws produce a chaotic opportunity to criminals. According to the Federal Police, 90% of the exported wood from the Amazon is illegal. In the meanwhile, the Uru-eu- wau-wau people are using bows and arrows to fight not only to protect their land but also to save the animals, nature and their own lives.

Behind the fires, there is a lucrative business.

*Francisco da Silva is a fictional name. He only accepted the photos and the interview if his real name wasn’t revealed

Compare satelite photos of deforestation

Amazon basin is made up of nine countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Suriname, Guiana and French Guiana, but 60% of it is located in Brazil. In just one year, 9,762 square kilometres of forest were cleared in Brazil, according to the figures for 2019 (August 2018-July 2019) of PRODES project, operated by the government research institute INPE, which shows a 29.5% increase over the previous year.

In 1990 the forest area of Brazil was 65.4% of its surface, according to the World Bank. Brazilian forest has been gradually reducing over the past two decades. In 1998, it represented 62.9% of its size; in 2003 it was already 61.3%; in 2009 it represented 59.8% of the country, and in 2016, the last year with available data by the World Bank, it represented 58.9% of its surface.

Maybe saying that Brazil lost 9,91% of its forest area in the last 15 years does not mean a lot. However, in a 8.5-million-sq-km country it means that Brazil lost 541,510 square kilometres of forest in 15 years. In 15 years Brazil lost a forest area about the size of France or about Infinity times the size of .

Brazil lost 541,510 square
kilometres of forest

Compare different areas
Photos: Google Earth

The trend is global

The planet is losing its forests. Thirteen million hectares of forest disappear every year, according to the United Nations. In 1990, 31.62% of the land area was made up of forests, according to the World Bank. In 2016, the percentage had been reduced to 30.7%. Losing 0,9% of the forest area of the planet means losing 4.5 million square kilometres of forest, an area as big as the whole India and South Africa together.

World’s Forests

Changes in the global forest (1990-2016)
image/svg+xml
Data source: Food and Agriculture Organization, electronic files and web site.

Why is the Amazon burning?

In August 2019, NASA’s satellites, which make daily observations of thermal anomalies, observed a remarkable increase in the size, intensity and number of fires in Brazilian Amazon. The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) recorded over 76,000 fires in Brazil between January and August 2019, which means that the number of fires was 80% higher than the previous year. Why is the Amazon burning?

The main driver behind the fires is “the anthropogenic land-use change (forests converted into agricultural land)”, explains the Food and Agriculture organisation of the United Nations (FAO). The fires in Brazil are connected with deforestation (in which fire is commonly used in the process) and environmental dismantling (the budget to prevent and fight fires and environmental agencies’ capacity was reduced), notices Cristiane Mazzetti, Greenpeace Brazil’s Amazon Campaigner

“The fires should not be normal, but every year there are burns in that dry season, between July and August,” says journalist Alberto César Araujo, photo editor of the Amazônia Real agency, who has been photographing the Amazon for two decades. Most of the fires in Amazon are a result of human actions, either intentional or accidental, according to INPE. In Brazil, ranchers and farmers use fire to clear land. “It is a complete system,” he continues. Due to the humidity of the forest, they must cut rainforest trees to allow the wood to dry; then they burn the wood to clear the land. Besides, the rhetoric of the current government “has already encouraged forest destruction,” Mazzetti adds.

“We will give rifles and weapons to all farmers,” Jair Bolsonaro, who became the president of Brazil in January 2019, said in 2016. “You can be sure that if I succeed [being elected president], there will be no money for NGOs,” Bolsonaro said in April 2017. “Not one centimetre of land will be demarcated for indigenous reserves or quilombolas (descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves who escaped from plantations),” he said during his campaign, in February 2018.

Figures show a direct relationship between burning areas and deforestation. Among the 10 Brazilian municipalities that recorded the largest fires in 2019, seven also have the highest number of forest degradation alerts, according to InfoAmazonia, a network of organisations and journalists that provides reports of the endangered Amazon region.

In Brazil, ranchers and farmers
use fire to clear land
Fires & Deforestation

LIVE: Mapping fires in the last seven days
Data source: MODIS Collection 6 NRT Hotspot / Active Fire Detections MCD14DL. Available on-line [https://earthdata.nasa.gov/firms]. doi: 10.5067/FIRMS/MODIS/MCD14DL.NRT.006
Daily updated with 80% certainty that it was a fire
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Author: Gabriel Uchida
Data research: Lola García-Ajofrín
Design: Kasia Polus
Web development: Piotr Kliks
Proofreading: Grzegorz Kurek