Fogo afeta 225 mil hectares (54,4%) da TI Araribóia (Foto: Marizilda Cruppe / Greenpeace)

State of alert: how huge fires in Brazil threaten indigenous and isolates

By Rafael Nakamura | Translation: Patrícia Ribeiro de Carvalho

In the year 2015, from September until the last days of December, the indigenous people of Maranhão’s state saw much of the remaining of Amazon forest and Cerrado in their territories disappear in forest fire of great proportions. On October 8th 2015, through Decree N ° 31,186, the State Government declared emergency in 11 Indigenous Lands (TI) – Araribóia, Geralda do Toco Preto, Cana Brava Guajajara, Governador, Krikati, Lagoa Comprida, Bacurizinho, Urucu, Juruá, Porquinhos e Canela – due to several fire outbreaks recorded on them. A few months later, the TIs Alto Turiaçu, Awa e Caru, which form the complex Alto Turiaçu, also suffered new fires.

According to the National Center for Prevention and Control of Forest Fires (Prevfogo), the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), only of TI Araribóia were consumed by fire 225,000 hectares (54.4% of the total area ), affecting a population of approximately 12,000 Guajajara-Tenetehara, besides isolated Awa Guajá’s groups. On the other hand, the TIs Alto Turiaçu, Awa e Caru, where inhabit the Guajajara-Tenetehara, Ka’apor, Awa Guajá of recent contact and isolated, had lost, respectively, 75,000 hectares (14.1% of the area), 67 hectares (57.5%) and 11 hectares (6.3%).

Important hunting and gathering areas were destroyed, directly affecting Awa Guajá population of recent contact and their isolated groups, essentially hunter-gatherers peoples. Furthermore, the loss is not only in material terms, since the plants and animals represent much more than purely food to these peoples’ worldview. “We care about the fire that burns the forest, our ‘market’. Bacuri burned, assai, bacaba, pequi and also repelled the hunting animals, bringing hunger to our communities”, laments Xiparẽxa Awa Guajá, For all of the communities that suffer the impacts of fire, the episode is sadly remembered . “We were very sad to see the forest burning. There died a lot of hunting, chaplain, monkey, turtle, scorched all. The wood burning dried the water. Lack water for animal drinking, which is also dying of thirst”, laments Majakatỹ Awa Guajá, chieftain of the village Tiracambu, TI Caru.of the village Tiracambu, TI Caru.

Floresta queimando na TI Araribóia onde o fogo afetou 54,4% da área total (Foto: Marizilda Cruppe / Greenpeace)

Burning forest in the Indigenous Land Araribóia, where the fire affected 54.4% of the total area (Photo: Marizilda Cruppe / Greenpeace).

With the delay of the official bodies’ teams, indigenous people organized their own brigades firefighting. It was essential the protection work and monitoring of their territory made by Awa Guajá, by the brigade Guajajara-Tenetehara and the Guardiões da Floresta (Guardians of the Forest) – formed groups in TIs Caru and Araribóia by Guajajara-Tenetehara, and in TI Alto Turiaçu by Ka’apor. To the extent that the fire outbreaks intensified, they were gaining reinforcements both the competent bodies as indigenous brigades of other peoples.

By the competent organs, there were two fire-fighting operations. The first one, Operation Awa held in TI Araribóia, it counted with Prevfogo, Maranhão’s firefighters, Brazilian army soldiers and civil servants of Ibama and the National Indian Foundation (Funai). In the second one, Operation Alto Turiaçu held in TIs Caru, Awá and Alto Turiaçu participated Maranhão’s firefighters and civil servers from Ibama and Funai, besides the State Environmental Police Battalion, who acted in the teams’ security. Both operations relied on the work of the Guardians of the Forest and indigenous brigades.

Nevertheless, even with the brigades’ arduous efforts, the fire’s kilometric extension was controlled only with the rainy season’s arrival. “On December 31st, I remember like it was today, the rain had come. Solely a firefighter, Tupã who managed, with the rain, put out the fire that many were not able to”, recalls Claudio Guajajara, coordinator of the Guardians of the Forest in the village Maçaranduba, TI Caru.

Mapa com focos de calor na TI Caru em novembro e dezembro de 2015

Map with hot spots in the Indigenous Land Caru between November and December 2015.

Still in 2015, the state of Maranhão accumulated 21,700 hectares (217 square kilometers) of deforestation, according to data from Amazon Deforestation Monitoring Project (PRODES). Adding to the accumulated data on the state since 1988, year of Prodes’ beginning, it comes to 2.4 million hectares (24 square kilometers) of Amazon forest’s deforestation. Currently, indigenous lands concentrate the few remnants of preserved forest in the state, which makes the fires’ effects further devastating.

In the villages’ areas, the final balance was also worrying. “The Jussaral village had burned houses, some villages next to the Arame municipality also came to catch fire. The homes’ damage was not the most grievous, the most tragic was the forest’s burning, once it was already very vulnerable because of illegal logging. The major loss were the plants, animals, many which we may not even recover”, says Sonia Bone Guajajara, village leadership Lagoa Quieta, TI Araribóia, and member of the coordination of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB).

For all of the communities that suffer the impacts of fire, the episode is sadly remembered . “We were very sad to see the forest burning. There died a lot of hunting, chaplain, monkey, turtle, scorched all. The wood burning dried the water. Lack water for animal drinking, which is also dying of thirst”, laments Majakatỹ Awa Guajá, chieftain of the village Tiracambu, TI Caru.

Focos Awa

Map with hot spots in the Indigeous Land Awa between November and December 2015.

Along with the fire also came the smoke, which brought health problems. “The smoke caused many influenza, diarrhea, which today are happening in the community”, tells Marcilene Guajajara, health server in the village Maçaranduba, TI Caru.

Between the fire and the tractors

With the fire spreading yet another concern arose. Both the TI Araribóia as the Complexo Alto Turiaçu are areas where there is presence of isolated Awa Guajá’s groups . These groups currently cornered in the presence of different pressures on their territory, possibly been even more trapped under the fire. “There was a moment of concern about the contact, because the fire began to take a very large proportion and the only area that remained of Araribóia was the isolated’s. In addition to the fire that was in the south-north direction, inside the forest had the logging pressure from the northern part of Araribóia, so they were really islanded”, reports Bruno Lima, coordinator of Ethno-Environmental Protection Front Awá-Guajá  (FPEAG) of Funai.

Throughout Operation Awa in TI Araribóia, several instances where the isolated appeared in the woods were reported. The Guajajara that formed the brigade team found traces of the isolates. In a tapiri (shelter) they found fire and food residues, as well as utensils and arrows. The vestiges, including children, were at a few meters from the fires’ focus in TI Araribóia.

Because of the risk that the isolates were suffering, the FPEAG outlined an emergency plan if there was an inevitable contact situation. “We have triggered a contingency plan thinking mainly on health risks. We took eight interpreters from Tiracambu village to the fire’s combat area and they were always with the team. The Guardians of the Forest acted in partnership with CGIIRC [General Coordination of Isolated Indians and Recent Contact], and we have opened a clearing and a few narrow trails in the woods. If there was a contact, the recommendation was to use the escape area to don’t take them to into the bases, which were in unsanitary conditions, with many news crews”, added FPEAG’s coordinator.

Fortunately for the Awa Guajá isolates, the forced contact was not necessary. The fire was controlled in the surrounding territory, but it didn’t mean the end of the concerns. Bruno Lima explains that the risk remains because the portion of the territory that remains is too small for the isolates and their area is of interest of illegal logging since being one of the few places where is found wood in the region.

Also in Operation Alto Turiaçu there were reports of identified traces by firefighters, and it was constant the concern for the isolates Awa Guajá. Furthermore, in the post-fire, the same problems which goes through the indigenous settled into villages are applied to the isolated groups. “the Isolated relatives are also going through hunger problems. Hunting for them is as difficult as for us”, said Itaxĩ Awa Guajá, chieftain of the village Awa, TI Caru. “I saw herd of peccary only with three. I’ve never seen peccary so, I think they’re all burnt. We have no water to drink, we only get water if we dig wells. We’re drinking a white water, seems milk”, completes Tatuxa’a Awa Guajá, another chieftain of the village Awa.


The many operational difficulties brought high expenses to Funai and Ibama. Bruno Lima argues that it was, inclusive, the reason for the delay in the arrival of the organs to the TIs Alto Turiaçu, Awá and Caru, from the time it was reported the fire’s presence to the start of the operation. “It was the end of the year and the budget had already been spent on the whole Operation Araribóia”, reveals the coordinator. The long distances covered within the indigenous lands to reach the fire sites and dry weather of the dryness season in Maranhao haven’t helped. Notwithstanding the exhaustive work, the teams had to deal yet with another obstacle: the presence of illegal loggers.

During the operation in TI Araribóia, on October 16th, Ibama’s team suffered an attack within the indigenous land in the Arame municipality’s region. The team was flying over the site when spotted an illegal logging that had three trucks and a tractor. The agents landed the helicopter and began to be targeted. Roberto Cabral, federal environmental agent, was hit by a shot in his right arm.

Apreensão de madeira ilegal durante a Operação Araribóia (Foto: PMMA - Batalhão de Polícia Militar Ambiental do Maranhão)

Illegal timber apprehension during Operation Indigenous Land Araribóia (Photo: Environmental Military Police Battalion of the State of Maranhão).

Another episode occurred in the TI Alto Turiaçu while a team was being transported to fight the fire. As they used an Ibama surveillance vehicle, the brigade members were misidentified and attacked. “We came across a wooden loaded truck coming out TI Alto Turiaçu. This truck passes and throws the vehicle into the brigade’s car, which was characterized as surveillance. If the driver does not divert to the right, the truck would have taken the car with everything”, says Kurtis François, PrevFogo’s server, who led Operation Alto Turiaçu. In Kurtis opinion, this was the most difficult in the TIs Alto Turiaçu, Caru and Awa. “The major problem in these areas was the conflicts with loggers” reports.

The encounters with loggers in the two operations were not just coincidences. The indigenous lands in Maranhão suffer from illegal exploitation and there are evidence that some of the fires were caused by loggers’ interest of themselves. “I suggested it to be open an inquiry because there were indications of keen interest in these fires. This would have been investigated by the relevant agencies”, says the deputy commander of Maranhão’s Environmental Police Battalion, Major Sergio Nogueira.

The suspicion is that with the fire already started, the loggers would have helped to spread the fire outbreaks, a reprisal action against to the actions of surveillance and territory’s protection that the indigenous themselves began doing on their land. “This forest was the karaí’s [white man] burning. The fire goes straight, look at the GPS. We extinguished the fire and after half an hour there was fire again”, affirms José Ribamar Silva Rocha, Frente de Proteção’s server.

Keeping the responsible bodies’ attention in the fires was possible for the loggers to act undisturbed in other areas, and this was noticed during the operations. “When we entered it was not a surveillance operation but to fight fire. We realized that one thing can not unlink the other, along the operation it was convenient for the loggers. We’ve deduced that, if keeps the fire, they take wood elsewhere in peace. Thus, we’ve found out several arsons in the forest with features that were not regular fire. It was someone’s thing who was dripping and making a fire line”, said Bruno Lima.

The simple strategy to divert attention to continue the illegal logging is part of a much larger system. According to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), in 2015 the country’s wildfires have grown 27.5% over the previous year. Maranhão is among the three record holders’ states, with 30,066 fires in 2015, behind only Mato Grosso (32,984) and Pará (44,794).

In an interview to Folha de São Paulo, Alberto Setzer, INPE’s coordinator of burned’s core, cites the rise of meat prices as an aggravation to the increase in fires. The article also mentions as another aggravation the soybean and corn productions in MATOPIBA’s region (Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia), where the increase in fire occurrence was 37.9%, and where the grains’ production for export gained new momentum with the homonymous plan, launched in 2015 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (MAPA) to the growth and development of agricultural activities in the region.

Profit chain

The timber cutting is only the first step to deforestation, right after burning all that’s left. In a few days, the ground is clean so that transgenic soy seeds can be planted or for cattle pasture. The documentary “Brazil’s Awa Tribe: the Final Battle“, a French production and filmed in the Awa Guajá’s lands, reveals the modus operandi of the small and highly profitable illegal logging. The report cites the World Bank report according to which illegal logging would yield US$ 15 billion per year and was often linked to the organized crime. The french’s documentary interest is because France leads the imports of Brazilian tropical timber.

Taking advantage of the clandestine loggers services operating into indigenous lands, exporting companies “clean” their business with the use of false documents attesting that the wood was legally removed. From Brazilian ports, the illegal timber goes mainly to the United States and Europe. As an example, the documentary cites the case of company Rancho da Cabocla, one of the most important exporters of Para, with an antecedent of frauds and documents’ falsification, and continues providing wood to buyers in France. The execution of major works included the usage of Brazilian ipe, as the The National Library of France and the Solferino footbridge, which lies between the Musée d’Orsay and the Tuileries Garden. The public banks at Champs Elysées in Paris are also made of Brazilian ipe. One of the main buyers is the Saint Gobain Group, a giant in the construction’s branch.

In the end of this chain are the local conflicts between indigenous and loggers. Those latter constantly work armed, and many Awa Guajá’s narratives report white men’s getaways who have shot at the indigenous. The stories continue to be repeated, as in the case of Eusébio Ka’apor, murdered on April 26th 2015. Since 2013, the Ka’apor have started to organize themselves to evict loggers from their land. Eusébio was the Ximborendá village’s leadership in Terra Indígena Alto Turiaçu, and participated in the organized actions to end illegal logging.

In Maranhao, the logging and presence of sawmills stand out in the municipalities of Buriticupu, Zé Doca, Centro do Guilherme, Amarante do Maranhão and Grajaú, the latter two are considered as priority in the state according to the Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Amazon (PPCDAm). The illegal activities, once exhausted the municipal exploration areas, advances to the set of the Indigenous Lands of Guajajara-Tenetehara peoples, Awa Guajá, Ka’apor, Gavião Pykobjê, Canela-Apanjekrá, Canela-Ramkokamekrá, besides the Gurupi Biological Reserve, which borders the TIs Caru and Awa.

To Claudio Guajajara, a Guardian of the Forest, the fires prevention on indigenous lands involves the task of ending the illegal activity. “The authorities need to think a way to fight off the illegal sawmills outside the TIs. Who draws out wood here are the bandits, they use false authorization permits to transport wood. You go to Buriti and look the sawmills, where you cannot see neither the roof because of so much wood. All overloaded with ipe, maçaranduba. We know that everything comes from the indigenous land interior”, denounces.

While the illegal logging hasn’t came to an end, the indigenous continue protecting their territories in the manner as they can. “The karaí are removing wood even from our village area. We are striving to get help, to film, fighting against these karaí. The karaí steals, but we are doing ritual to take care of this forest”, tells the chieftain Xiparẽxa Awa Guajá.

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