• Amazon fires this year are seriously threatening Indigenous territories in which isolated uncontacted Indigenous groups make their homes. Brazil has an estimated 100+ isolated Indigenous groups living within its borders, more than any other Amazonian nation.
  • Particularly threatened by fires in 2020 are the isolated Ãwa people who live on Bananal Island in Tocantins state; the uncontacted Awá inhabiting the Arariboia Indigenous Reserve in Maranhão state; and uncontacted groups in the Uru Eu Wau Wau Indigenous territory in Rondônia and Ituna Itatá Indigenous territory in Pará, the Brazilian state with the highest deforestation and land conflicts rates.
  • All of these Indigenous territories are under intense pressure from land grabbers, illegal loggers and ranchers, with many of this year’s fires thought to have been set intentionally as a means of converting protected rainforest to pasture and cropland.
  • Meanwhile, the government has hobbled IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, defunding it and preventing it from fighting fires, causing one critic to accuse the administration of having “waged war against Indigenous peoples” and of “an ongoing genocide.”

Amazon fires are burning this year within the protected lands inhabited by isolated uncontacted Indigenous peoples. The fires, largely illegal and intentionally set by land grabbers, ranchers and farmers, are often utilized as a deforestation tool — clearing land for timber, beef and soy production. The fires can deprive these forest peoples of their homes and subsistence livelihoods, forcing them off their ancestral lands.

Uncontacted Indigenous groups, which may be more accurately described as “Indigenous people in voluntary isolation” still exist in all nine of Amazonia’s countries, but are most concentrated in Brazil, where at least one hundred Indigenous groups are known to live with no regular outside contact.

2020 fires endangering uncontacted Amazon Indigenous groups
An ‘uncontacted’ tribe in the Brazilian Amazon photographed in 2011. These groups may be more accurately described as “in voluntary isolation.” Some are known to have historically traded with other Indigenous groups, explaining their possession of metal tools.  © Gleison Miranda/FUNAI.
2020 fires endangering uncontacted Amazon Indigenous groups
Map showing the general areas of uncontacted tribes in South America. Screenshot from Uncontactedtribes.org. Imagery ©2020 NASA/TerraMetrics.

According to Survival International’s (Survival) senior researcher Sarah Shenker, Survival has been receiving reports of fires from contacted Indigenous people in territories neighboring these uncontacted groups.

“We get updates regularly from [contacted] Indigenous people by WhatsApp and other means,” Shenker said. “They’re telling us about the fires, where the fires are, how bad they are, and whether or not they’ve managed to put them out.”

Survival can verify these alerts using apps that draw upon satellite data from Brazil’s National Space Agency (INPE) and NASA.

2020 fires endangering uncontacted Amazon Indigenous groups
Screenshot from the Alerta Somai App shows 113 hotspot fire alerts in and around the Uru Eu Wau Wau Indigenous Territory between September 26 and October 26, 2020. Image via Sarah Shenker ©Alertas SOMAI.

Uncontacted Indigenous people are among the most vulnerable to deforestation and fires, as they rely entirely on the forest to meet their needs for food, medicine and shelter. Forest destruction can also push them from their territories into forced contact with outsiders. This means exposure to diseases for which they have little to no immunity.

Such incidents in the past have led to the deaths of entire communities, and are particularly concerning during the current COVID-19 pandemic that has already killed more than 157,000 Brazilians, including many Indigenous people, especially elders.

“All of the isolated peoples are under threat by the fire,” Atenor Vaz, an expert in isolated Indigenous groups told Mongabay contributor Shanna Hanbury in an interview. “Whenever there are fires, there are more sightings of [roaming] isolated groups on river banks and close to other Indigenous villages.”

2020 fires endangering uncontacted Amazon Indigenous groups
Screenshot of the documentary film “Ka’a Zar Ukyze Wà” — Forest Keepers in Danger — showing a member of the Awá Guajá Awá Guajá ‘uncontacted’ tribe in 2018. Unaware he was being filmed, he is smelling a machete left in the area by outsiders,.

“Using NASA satellite data, [we] have constantly shown that territories with isolated indigenous peoples are among those more impacted by the forest fires,” said Gustavo Faleiros, editor of InfoAmazonia and a Mongrabay contributor.

According to Survival International, four uncontacted groups face particularly serious threats from fires this year.

The first are the uncontacted Awá people who live on Bananal Island, the largest river-bound island in the world, located at the confluence of the Javaés and Araguaia rivers in Tocantins state, Brazil. Last year, 80% of the island’s forest burned. Today, more than 1,000 cattle graze on the island, which is a mosaic of indigenous territories and protected areas. This year, fires have been reported in some of the remaining forests.

Another group threatened by fires is the uncontacted Awá of Maranhão state in the Arariboia Indigenous Reserve which, according to Survival, has been heavily invaded by illegal loggers. Reports of fires have come from the Indigenous Guajajara who protect the Arariboia Reserve for both their own community and for their uncontacted neighbors.

2020 fires endangering uncontacted Amazon Indigenous groups
“Guardians of the Forest” pose for a photo in the Araribóia indigenous reserve, in Maranhão state, on Jan 31, 2019. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay.

“We fight to protect this forest, and many of us have been killed doing so, but the invaders keep coming,” Tainaky Tenetehar, an Indigenous Guajajara Guardian said in a statement released by Survival. “They have damaged the forest so much in recent years that their fires are now much bigger, and more serious, than before, as the forest is so dry and vulnerable. The loggers must be evicted — only then can the uncontacted Awá survive and thrive.”

Fires have been detected within the Uru Eu Wau Wau Indigenous Territory in Rondônia state, where two uncontacted tribes are known to live, and in the Ituna Itatá Territory in Pará state.

The Ituna Itatá Reserve, inhabited solely by isolated Indigenous groups, was the most deforested Indigenous territory in 2019 according to InfoAmazonia and Survival. More than 1,300 hectares (3,212 acres) of forest were destroyed in the first four months of 2020, a 60% increase compared to the same time period last year.

“Now the constant fire seems to prove there are coordinated invasions and efforts to dominate the [Ituna Itatá] territory,” Faleiros said.

2020 fires endangering uncontacted Amazon Indigenous groups
The map shows fire hotspots from October 1 – 15, 2020 in the Ituna-Itatá Reserve, home to uncontacted Indigenous people. The image is a screenshot from an interactive map created by InfoAmazonia as part of their “Suffocated Amazon” series.

Even when the fires do not push Indigenous people from their homes, the secondary effects can do great harm. In Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, for example, which have seen massive fires this year, deforestation has combined with the fires to cause increased erosion from denuded lands, with excess organic matter and ash washed into tributaries, rivers and lakes, where it causes bacteria to multiply out of control, contaminating drinking water.

“When the rains start, probably at the end of October, [conditions] will get worse as more ash will be drained into the lakes and little rivers, and then to the major ones,” biologist Débora Calheiros, who has studied Pantanal river and flood ecology for 30 years, told contributor Fernanda Wenzel in a recent Mongabay interview. “The governments have to act with urgency to deliver drinkable water and chlorine to those [impacted] communities.”

Fires also have consequences for the plants and animals that forest-dwelling people rely on. Indigenous diets rely heavily on fish for protein, but water contaminated with ash may already be adversely impacting freshwater fisheries, both in the Pantanal and in the Amazon, although little research has been done linking fires and fisheries.

“Their culture is entirely based on the forest. If it catches on fire, there is no one to help — there’s no salary, no fridge,” Vaz said. “Food sovereignty is drastically reduced.”

2020 fires endangering uncontacted Amazon Indigenous groups
An Enawene Nawe child shows a smoked fish caught in a dam on the Adowina or Black River, Brazil. © Fiona Watson/Survival International.

What the specific impacts of fire are on aquatic biodiversity is hard to say. Because fires largely follow deforestation, it is difficult to distinguish between the harmful effects of land clearing, fire, mining and overfishing.

“I think there’s no question that [deforestation] has impacted certain seed and fruit eating fishes. They’re much less common now than they used to be. But again, there’s been a lot of overfishing as well.… So, it’s hard to parse that out,” Michael Goulding told Mongabay; he is an aquatic ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and has worked in the Amazon for more than forty years.

“Deforestation turns these otherwise clear water rivers relatively turbid,” Goulding said. “And a lot of aquatic biodiversity there has evolved to live in relatively sediment-free rivers. So, we still don’t know what the impact of that is.”

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