A record outbreak of fires is incinerating the Amazon, the largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world, which is home to at least one in every 10 species of plants and animals on Earth and millions of indigenous people.
Rather than working for environmental preservation, Jair Bolsonaro, the recently elected president of Brazil, is committed to opening up the Amazon to business. He has also refused to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples — who are facing a wave of increasing attacks and threats — to their ancestral land. Wealth instead of well-being seems to be Bolsonaro’s priority, which is why many are calling him the “Tropical Trump.”
“If you open up and destroy these [rainforest] territories, not only does it spell genocide for the people who live there, but it’s also catastrophic for all of humanity in terms of our fight against climate change,” Survival International senior researcher Sarah Shenker told Earther. “By far, the best way to combat climate change is to protect indigenous territories.”
Indigenous Brazilians are now on a mission to remind society that they exist and are battling against the colonial tactics of governments and corporations, which see them — and the rain forest — as obstacles to economic development.
“We Indians are like plants. How can we live without our soil, without our land?” asked Marta, from the Guarani tribe, in a report by Survival Brazil. “We exist. I want to tell the world that we are alive and want to be respected as peoples.”
Making the invisible visible
There are approximately 800,000 indigenous people in Brazil. Although they make up less than one percent of the Brazilian population, there are 305 ethnic groups and 274 unique languages among them. Most live in the Amazon region, where they have found the resources and conditions needed to sustain their way of life for generations. Some tribes still have no contact with modern society.
In April, an estimated 4,000 indigenous people from many different tribes gathered for three days in Brazil’s capital to protest for their rights, demonstrate their traditions and debate with congressional leaders. This nonviolent mobilization, called Free Land Camp, has taken place every year since 2004 and is organized by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, or APIB — an alliance of indigenous communities and organizations from several regions of the country. This year’s assembly denounced the growing attacks against their peoples and lands, proposed changes to the current government’s anti-indigenous policies and demanded justice.
APIB was created to unite, mobilize and strengthen the defense of indigenous peoples and their constitutional rights. Its executive coordinator — Sônia Guajajara, a 44-year-old indigenous woman with a degree in special education — is a key figure in the national indigenous movement. In 2010, she handed a “Golden Chainsaw” award to Kátia Abreu, the former minister of agriculture, to protest amendments to the Brazilian Forest Code that would increase deforestation rates for agribusiness growth. She has already participated in several United Nations climate change conferences and international events, where she denounced threats against the indigenous peoples of Brazil.
“We have already advanced a lot. We are showing ourselves, participating, discussing and bringing our voice,” Guajajara said in an interview with the Amazon Environmental Research Institute. “[But] we still need to work on raising awareness of society as a whole to support the process of indigenous lands demarcation because when we have land demarcated and protected, we are preserving a good that is for everyone.”
Indigenous youth are also using social media to spread their messages and amplify their voices. Twenty-seven-year-old indigenous Brazilian Erisvan Bone — along with other young indigenous people — created Mídia Índia in 2017. The project uses social networks such as Facebook and Instagram to disseminate content that discusses important issues among indigenous peoples and also educates society at large. At the same time, Mídia Índia works to make indigenous cultural diversity and traditions — usually portrayed in a stereotypical way — better known within and beyond the Brazilian society.
“The goal is to give voice to traditional peoples [in Brazil] and visibility to their struggle and resistance, at a time of attacks and loss of rights,” explained Bone in a report by Instituto NET Claro Embratel. “It is to bring facts of reality told by ourselves and show that the indigenous can be protagonists of their history.”
Meanwhile, 20-year-old Cristian Wariu, an indigenous Brazilian who grew up outside his family’s tribal territory, has been using YouTube as a weapon against discrimination and ethnocide. He created a channel on the platform two years ago where he talks about his own indigenous culture, differences across indigenous lifestyles and recent demonstrations. The most-watched video on his channel — titled “What it’s like to be indigenous in the 21st century” — has over 40,000 views so far.
“Long ago, I realize that people who are not part of our culture have a certain prejudice against indigenous peoples,” Wariu told the BBC. “Whenever I explain things better, they come to respect us more. I saw YouTube as an opportunity to reach more people and explain to them about our [misunderstood] culture.”
Changing roles, changing rules
Since the beginning of this year, illegal mining has exploded in the Yanomami indigenous territory, in the Brazilian Amazon, where tribal leaders have reported the presence of more than 10,000 illegal miners on their land. It is the largest invasion since the land was demarcated in 1992, which the Yanomami people have exclusive use of according to the law.
On July 23, several gold miners invaded the Wajãpi community and cruelly stabbed the tribe leader to death. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet promptly issued a public statement saying, “The murder of Emrya Wajãpi … is a disturbing symptom of the growing problem of encroachment on indigenous land — especially forests — by miners, loggers and farmers in Brazil.”
For a long time Brazil has been one of the world’s most dangerous countries for land and forest defenders — approximately one million people were involved in rural conflicts in the country, many of which happened inside indigenous territories, in 2018 alone. But under Bolsonaro’s administration, land invasions, killings and displacement of indigenous peoples are becoming the rule rather than the exception.
“This violence generated against indigenous peoples arose from the lack of recognition of indigenous lands, the extreme degree of discrimination against indigenous peoples and the impunity on what happens over indigenous lands,” explained Brazil’s first indigenous lawyer Joenia Wapichana in an interview with the Indigenous Missionary Council.
Last year, Wapichana also became the first indigenous woman ever elected to be a federal deputy, and the second indigenous person to have a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in the history of the country. In her new role, she is working to end violence against indigenous peoples, combat corruption and promote sustainable development. And she is not alone in this quest. There has been an increase in indigenous candidates in national elections over the past five years, including a record 56 percent rise in the number of indigenous candidates last year alone.
This year, the indigenous lobby has already shown signs of its strength. It helped block one of Bolsonaro’s first moves after taking power: an attempt to transfer the authority of the National Indian Foundation — that oversees indigenous land issues — to the Ministry of Agriculture, which traditionally favors interests of agribusiness and extractive industries.
Defending the defenders
From 2005 to 2012, deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon dropped by about 70 percent, thanks to effective environmental policies and zero-deforestation commitments adopted in the country by the government and corporations. However, these strategies haven’t been maintained and the situation has been worsening in recent years.
Deforestation and wildfires in the Brazilian Amazon hit a record high this year and scientists are arguing it is not by accident. The widely respected Brazilian Space Research Institute has detected that over 2,400 square miles of rainforest have been lost in the last 12 months, which is equivalent to an area eight times the size of the city of New York. This represents a 48 percent increase in rainforest loss over the previous year. (President Bolsonaro, who has been called “Captain Chainsaw,” insists that this scientific data is a lie.) These trends, if maintained, will likely pose serious threats to all forms of life on Earth.
Now, while many are praying for someone to “save the Amazon,” indigenous peoples are looking to technology to combat forest destruction, land grabs and climate change. The IPAM, a scientific, non-governmental and non-profit organization that works for the sustainable development of the Amazon, recently developed a cell phone app called Alerta Clima Indígena to help indigenous Brazilians find and share alerts about fires, illegal practices in the forest and climate data.
“The app is currently being used by indigenous brigades to combat forest fires under the supervision of IBAMA [the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources],” said IPAM Senior Researcher Paulo Moutinho. He also explained that there are important success stories that haven’t been disclosed yet, and that they are now seeking resources to expand this initiative together with indigenous leaders and related public organizations.
Although not every indigenous person has a phone or access to the internet, technology is becoming popular particularly among the youth. “Our traditional knowledge of management is no longer enough, we need new tools,” Kayapó tribe member Paxton Metuktire told IPAM. “We need to combine our knowledge with your technology to counteract the impacts and maintain our lands, [which is] fundamental to the survival of our people.”
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