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The Indigenous Groups Fighting for Their Land in a Fire-Ravaged Amazon

This year's Amazon fires left major devastation in their wake. This is what small farmers and communities lost.

by Denisa Sterbova; photos by David Tesinsky
23 October 2019, 9:30am

Chief Kaxuqui-Francisco, Apurinã tribe. All images byDavid Tesinsky

For decades, people have been setting fire to the Amazon, mainly to clear land for farming and cattle ranching. But the sheer scale of this year's destruction was devastating, attracting global attention and pointing it to the fact that things are getting worse. According to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), 45,256 fires were detected from January to August 2019, an 84 percent increase from the same period last year.

Conservationists blame the spike on Brazil's new government, headed by far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, saying he has encouraged farmers and loggers to clear the forest. They point to how Bolsonaro enjoys the support of the big agricultural firms because he campaigned on allowing for more large-scale agriculture and gold mining on protected lands.

Outline of indigenous man against the sky

The Amazon fires have done more than damage the lungs of the earth: they have and continue to threatening both small farmers and indigenous communities that live in the forest, too. I travelled to the northwestern Brazilian states of Amazonas and Acre, and talked to the communities there about the recent fires and all that they have lost as a consequence.

Chief Mapu, 29, leader of the Huni Kuin tribe

Mapu and the Huni Kuin tribe
Chief Mapu and the Huni Kuin tribe.

On the 22nd of August 2019, Chief Mapu's community witnessed their forest go up in flames. Mapu belongs to the Huni Kuin, an indigenous group living in Brazil and Peru. Despite being the largest tribe in the state of Acre, parts of their land are not officially recognised as protected by the state. As a result, many of the Huni Kuin people have already been displaced from the Brazilian-Bolivian border, where they lost land to competing commercial interests.

Mapu, who has performed traditional plant medicine rituals all over the world, has been raising money in various campaigns to buy his people's territories. The Huni Kuin depend on the forest for their livelihoods and their physical and spiritual wellbeing. Like many other indigenous people, their knowledge of the local plants and animals and their relationship with the land make them invaluable allies for conservation efforts. "The forest is, for us indigenous people, the source of medicinal plants," he told me. "While the loggers perceive it only as a source of precious wood and therefore money, we have the wisdom about the use of medicinal plants that was inherited from our ancestors. If the forest disappears, so will our knowledge."

Since the fires, Chief Mapu has brought a complaint to local authorities. His community is firmly determined to reforest the devastated area.

Kaxuqui-Francisco, local Chief of the Apurinã tribe, Boca do Acre municipality

Chief Kaxuqui-Francisco from the Apuriña tribe
Chief Kaxuqui-Francisco from the Apuriña tribe.

Kaxuqui-Francisco is chief of one of the Apurinã tribes that live along the banks of the Purus river in western Brazil. From the late 1800s onwards, the Purus river was settled by rubber plantation owners who enslaved, tortured and massacred the Apurinã people. Now, these tribes inhabit 27 indigenous lands, but only 20 of them have been fully demarcated and registered.

Francisco and his wife welcomed us into their home, where we spent the night sleeping in hammocks in the middle of the jungle. Early in the morning the following day, we set off on a four-hour walk through the brush to go see one of the sites where the Amazon fires are currently raging. The land where Francisco's people live is protected. Despite this, he alleges that his tribe has lost a total of 600 hectares of forest over the course of several years, both to fires and to the illegal logging of the highly-priced Brazilian nut tree wood.

Ongoing fires in the Amazon
Ongoing fires in the Amazon.

These 50-metre tall plants can be found in the forests of Brazil, Peru and Bolivia and can live for 1000 years. Besides sustaining a delicate ecosystem, the plants are also the main source of income for many families in the Amazon, including Francisco’s, who harvest the nuts and sell them. The fires heavily damaged Fancisco’s earnings , but he still can survive thanks to the support of his children who work in the city.

Dona Jô, Jesuína Alves Braga, Bujari municipality, Acre

Dona Jô in front of her devastated land
Dona Jô in front of her devastated land

Dona Jô is a single mother and organic farmer. She lost almost everything in the recent fires, except her house, but she remains dedicated to replanting her land with vegetables, trees and other crops. Since the GMO crops are booming in the country, Dona Jô created an organic seed bank in her home. Her kitchen is lined with labelled plastic bottles, all of them filled with varieties of beans, chickpeas, rice and vegetable seeds.

Nowadays, she is a fundamental figure in the local organic farming movement. She is one of the organisers of the local organic fair and tries to convince other farmers to change to a more sustainable way of production.

Scroll down to see more photos from Amazonas and Acre.

Three little indigenous girls walking on burnt land
Young people from the Huni Kuin tribe.
Indigenous woman in front of burnt land
Indigenous tribe sitting on a fallen tree
Members of Chief Mapu's Huni Kuin community.
Indigenous women and children among fallen trees
The Huni Kuin tribe.
Areas of the Amazon devastated by the fires
Fires still burn across large parts of Acre and Amazonas.
Indigenous couple on their burnt land
Indigenous child looking over an adults' shoulders
Outline of burnt trees against the sky
The fires have devastated large parts of Acre.
Man desperately looks towards burnt land
An Acre resident looks out on the burned forest.
Indigenous man sitting at home in the dark
A house in the forest
Three indigenous man walking through fallen trees
Members of the Huni Kuni tribe work through clearing parts of the forest.
Indigenous man looking up at the forest

David Tesinsky

Tagged:
amazon
climate change
deforestation
indigenous people
farmers
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