Brazil’s Indigenous People Ravaged by Amazon Fires

Kayapo people stand by their shelters in the Bau indigenous reserve in Altamira, in Brazil’s Amazon. (AP photo/Leo Correa)

ALTAMIRA, Brazil (AP) — As fires raged in the Amazon rainforest, Mydje Kayapo sat in a small boat looking out over the Curua River in the Bau indigenous reserve. The smell of smoke filled the air, and Kayapo was worried.

“The fire is coming closer and closer to our reserve,” he told reporters. “Now it is about 20 kilometers away.”

Kayapo, one of the Bau people’s leaders, helps organize a village watch group to protect the community’s lands from encroaching flames, and from illegal loggers, miners and others who would exploit the area. With fires spreading quickly to wide swaths of indigenous territories in recent weeks, his task has grown more critical.

So far in 2019, Brazil reported 83,000 fires, a 77% increase from the same period last year. Many of those were set in deforested areas by people clearing land for cultivation or pasture.

With more than 98% of Brazil’s indigenous lands in Amazonia, the threat to groups like Kayapo’s are particularly exposed.

According to Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, an estimated 3,553 fires are burning on 148 indigenous territories in the region.

“Just outside, our reserve is being heavily deforested. It’s being badly destroyed,” Kayapo said. “We indigenous people need to be united.”

As a multitude of international players discuss how to develop and protect the Amazon, Kayapo and others find themselves on the front line of firefighting efforts and an acrimonious feud with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro has come under harsh criticism for environmental policies that are weakening safeguards in the rainforest. He claims Europeans are trying to infringe on his country’s sovereignty, and that the demarcation of indigenous lands has hindered business interests.

On Tuesday, he reasserted his claims at a meeting of Amazon regional governors, saying that reserves are being exploited by outsiders to stop the growth of Brazil’s economy.

“Many reserves are located strategically; someone arranged this,” Bolsonaro said, without clarifying who he was referring to. “Indians don’t have a (political) lobby, they don’t speak our language, but they have managed to get 14% of our national territory.”

As rhetoric escalates, indigenous leaders may have the most at stake.

A youth from the Kayapo indigenous community bathes in the river at dusk near his village in the Bau indigenous reserve in Altamira in Brazil’s Amazon. (AP photo/Leo Correa)

Saulo Katitaurlu, a leader in the municipality of Conquista D’Oeste in Mato Grosso state, was woeful as he walked along the banks of the Sarare River.

“The non-indigenous do whatever they want and then put the blame on the Indian,” Katitaurlu said, adding that when his group reported a fire to authorities, a rancher said the tribe had set the blaze themselves.

This year, he said his indigenous group, the Nambikwara Sarare, felt the effects of farming and ranching expansion even more acutely and said inspectors were “not going after” the criminals.

“Some years ago there were a few (fires) but now there are more,” Katitaurlu said. “With the Amazon burning, this is the largest (fire) that has ever happened and the smoke is coming here. Today the sky is clean, but two days ago it was full of smoke, and hot.”

In recent days, leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations pledged to help protect the Amazon region with $20 million, in addition to a separate $12 million from Britain and $11 million from Canada.

At the same time, Bolsonaro engaged in a personal feud with French President Emmanuel Macron, even insulting his wife, while Chilean President Sebastián Piñera said Latin America countries “have sovereignty over the Amazon.”

Leaders of all Amazon nations except Venezuela will meet Sept. 6 “to come up with our own unified strategy for preserving the environment, and also for exploration sustainable in our region,” Bolsonaro said Wednesday.

Although Bolsonaro and international players have dominated the discussion, some indigenous leaders appear to feel the most effective way to influence environmental preservation policies is to raise their own voices — or take matters into their own hands.

“I think this president doesn’t know the constitution very well,” said Kayapo, the leader from the Bau reserve. “We are resilient. If there is an invasion in our reserve, if they try to come here … we will react against the Bolsonaro government and say: ‘Not here. This reserve has an owner.'”

In an Aug. 24 video posted to YouTube, one indigenous woman wearing face paint and a headdress addressed the camera and vowed to “resist for the sake of the forest, for our way of living.”

“We from the Xingu River are connected to you, all together standing in defense of the Amazon,” she said. “We are on the front line and we need your support, join our fight.”

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