RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Brazil’s indigenous Manoki have been watching fires tear through their ancestral land for weeks, fearing the devastating damage to their forests may mean the end of their cultural heritage as well.
“The fires did irreversible damage to the places we hunt and collect medicine. Huge trees that took centuries to grow have been cut and burned,” tribe member Giovani Tapura, 38, told VICE News from the Amazon’s smaller Irantxe Indigenous Territory, where the Manoki live.
But just as much as their hunting grounds, Tapura and other Manoki fear the loss of their language. It was already on the cusp of extinction, between population loss from Portuguese massacres and disease, and missionaries forbidding Manoki to speak their language. Of the 400 remaining Manoki left in Brazil, only eight speak the tribe’s native language, also called Manoki, according to Tapura.
Holding onto their land is not just essential for their own survival — forests managed by indigenous groups like the Manoki sequester significant amounts of carbon, and indigenous people conserve an estimated 80% of the world's biodiversity.
They are far from alone with this problem: There are nearly 1 million indigenous Brazilians living in the Amazon, speaking roughly 200 languages, and almost half are endangered. The Amazon fires encroaching on many of their territories are heightening fears that if indigenous groups are driven out of the Amazon and forced into cities, their languages will go extinct.
Indigenous groups say government policies — and lack thereof — have set them up for failure. “There are no government incentives to help revive our language, and the policies for indigenous people the government is suggesting will decimate our culture — the most valuable thing we have,” said Tapura.
Brazil’s current President Jair Bolsonaro has stated that indigenous peoples should be assimilated into Brazilian society by opening up their lands to large-scale agriculture and mining — a move that would be unconstitutional. But experts believe that many of the fires set this year - and the rapid deforestation that preceded them - are strongly linked to land-grabbing and criminal networks. Amid an international outcry over thousands of fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, Bolsonaro, during a meeting of state governors, criticized indigenous territories and suggested he would soon draft measures preventing more indigenous territories from having the formal borders drawn that would give tribes more land rights.
Any threats to their land are a risk to the long-term existence of the Manoki as a cohesive community, said Bernat Bardagil Mas, a postdoctoral fellow specializing in Amazonian indigenous languages at the University of California, Berkeley. He added that their territory is “where the language revitalization efforts could be successful, where maintaining their traditions, their spiritual life, and their identity as Manoki is possible.”
“The fires did irreversible damage to the places we hunt and collect medicine.”
Without access to the Amazon rainforest, the community, surrounded on almost all sides by the steadily encroaching agricultural frontier in the southwestern edge of Mato Grosso state “would shift to a more and more urban type of life, moving progressively to the neighbouring cities of Brasnorte and Campo Novo do Parecís to find jobs and make living possible.” This would almost certainly drive their language to extinction.
Angel Corbera Mori, a linguist at the Institute of Language Studies at the University of Campinas, explained in an interview with Telesur that language itself is critical to the preservation of culture as a whole. “If a language is lost, so is the medicine, culinary, histories, traditional knowledge.”
The Manoki currently live on a much smaller territory than they did historically. The smaller Irantxe Indigenous Territory is adjacent to the larger Manoki Indigenous Territory in Mato Grosso, the state with the largest amount of fire alerts. The tribe has been awaiting official recognition of their land for nine years. It remains stalled because of appeals by squatters who illegally purchased land in indigenous territory. The Manoki and other tribes fear that outsiders are now emboldened by Bolsonaro’s pro-development and anti-indigenous rhetoric to invade their territory.
The environmental impact of the fires has been catastrophic, torching at least 130,000 acres of the rainforest — the equivalent to 72,000 soccer fields. The Amazon in its natural, humid state is essentially fireproof, but deforestation prepped it for the fires that some experts have suggested were in almost entirely all started by humans. Despite a ban issued by Bolsonaro against intentional burning at the end of August, the fires are still burning, and will likely continue through the dry season. Mato Grosso is currently the state with the highest number of fires detected by satellites.
Controlled burns are often used to “clean” land for pasture, an annual process that both removes shrubs and debris from the land and provides grass a short-term nutrient kick. But this year — emboldened by Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and a reduction in fines for illegal deforestation — farmers, loggers, and land-grabbers have doubled down. One group of farmers even organized a “fire day" to coordinate their fires, according to Brazilian news outlet Brasil de Fato. In combination with a rapid uptick in deforestation, a key driver of fires, many of the fires have burned out of control.
Three weeks ago, members of the Manoki community saw non-indigenous people intentionally burning a fire in the Manoki Indigenous Territory.
“Today they were very rude; they kept saying that the land is not ours," Marta Tipuic, who is a member of the Manoki, told OPAN, a Brazilian NGO, on August 27. She attempted to contact the Brazilian environmental protection agency Ibama to solve the problem, but says she didn’t receive a response. The Ministry of the Environment told VICE News it’s looking into the complaint; Ibama has been gutted by Bolsonaro and his predecessor Michael Temer, with funding cut by 24% and key leaders fired. Ibama staff have reported that their buildings and trucks have been burned, and that they are concerned for their own physical safety while on the job.
Read more: Just how bad are the Amazon fires?
The full impact of the fires on indigenous tribes is still unknown, but almost all of Brazil’s indigenous territories are in the Amazon, where over half of the fires still blazing are found. They have consumed some of the last areas inhabited by tribes that have never come into contact with the modern world.
Between January and August of this year, there was an 88% increase in fires from last year on indigenous territories in Brazil.
“These appalling fires are not accidental,” Survival International’s Director Stephen Corry said in a statement blaming Bolsonaro for facilitating attacks on the Amazon. “The Amazon is being destroyed, and its indigenous peoples are being destroyed at the fastest rate in generations.”
On August 22, a coalition of indigenous peoples wrote an open letter calling the fires an “environmental and humanitarian crisis,” and blaming Bolsonaro for the “the physical, environmental and cultural genocide currently happening in the Amazon.”
A professor at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, Robert Walker, also pointed out that groups like the Manoki who continue to live in the Amazon are also crucial to the rainforest’s survival.
“Indigenous people of Brazil represent the only effective force for conservation active in [the Amazon] at the present time.”
Cover: Fire consumes a field alongside the BR 163 highway in Nova Santa Helena municipality, Mato Grosso State, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)