Raging Amazon Forest Fires Threaten Uncontacted Indigenous Tribe

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Raging Amazon Forest Fires Threaten Uncontacted Indigenous Tribe

According to Survival International, fires are “raging” in Awá territory on the edge of the Brazilian Amazon and “threatening to wipe out uncontacted members of the Awá tribe.”

Fires are destroying pre-Amazon forest and threatening to wipe out uncontacted Indians for the second time in less than a year. (Photo: © INPE)

  • Small groups of Guajajara Indians, the Awá’s neighbors in the Amazon, reportedly battled the blaze for days without the assistance of government agents until Brazil’s Environment Ministry launched a fire-fighting operation two weeks ago.
  • Some 50 percent of the forest cover in the territory was destroyed by forest fires started by loggers in late 2015, and the Environment Ministry has warned that the situation is “even worse this year.”
  • Despite illegal loggers having destroyed more than 30 percent of the forest in Awá territory, the land contains some of the eastern Amazon’s last remaining patches of rainforest.

In April 2012, Survival International launched a global campaign to save the Awá, an uncontacted indigenous people that has been called “Earth’s most threatened tribe.” Two years later, the campaign claimed victory when the Brazilian government sent troops to remove illegal cattle ranchers and loggers from Awá land.

But now the Awá are facing yet another existential threat in the form of forest fires. According to Survival International, fires are “raging” in Awá territory on the edge of the Brazilian Amazon and “threatening to wipe out uncontacted members of the Awá tribe.”

Small groups of Guajajara Indians, the Awá’s neighbors in the Amazon, reportedly battled the blaze for days without the assistance of government agents until Brazil’s Environment Ministry launched a fire-fighting operation two weeks ago.

According to Survival International, nearly 50 percent of the forest cover in the territory was destroyed by forest fires started by loggers in late 2015, and the Environment Ministry has warned that the situation is “even worse this year.”

The Awá territory (bottom-left inset) has been a relative oasis of wilderness surrounded by increasing development, and contains a particularly large, continuous tract of primary forest called an Intact Forest Landscape. However, uncontrolled fires are wiping out vast swaths of the territory’s rainforest. Data from the Global Land Analysis & Discovery (GLAD) lab at the University of Maryland and visualized on Global Forest Watch show more than 191,000 tree cover loss alerts were recorded from 2015 to August 17, 2016, with the biggest bouts of fire activity starting in November of last year.

In this last week (Aug. 16 – Aug. 23) NASA has detected 284 fires, more than 100 of which were burning in the past 24 hours. Scorched areas and smoke are visible in satellite images. Image captured August 6 via UrtheCast/Landsat 8

“This is an urgent and horrific humanitarian crisis,” Survival International Director Stephen Corry said in a post on the group’s site. “The Brazilian authorities know that fires are going to break out in the dry season, and that they could decimate uncontacted peoples. Brazil needs to take its eyes off the Olympics and focus proper attention on stopping the annihilation of its tribal peoples.”

Survival International alleges illegal loggers have destroyed more than 30 percent of the forest in Awá territory. Still, the land still contains some of the eastern Amazon’s last remaining patches of rainforest.

Our direction

Members of a group called the Guajajara Guardians have not only been fighting the fires encroaching on their territory, they also patrol the forest in the hopes of evicting illegal loggers and protecting their uncontacted neighbors. The Guajajara Guardians receive little support from the Brazilian government, however, and they say that as long as they don’t have the resources they need to conduct their expeditions, the territory will remain vulnerable.

“We are defending our territory, so that the uncontacted Awá can survive,” said Olimpio Guajajara, the leader of the group, according to Survival International. “We have managed to reduce the number of loggers on our land and we hope to force all of them out. Otherwise, the Awá could be wiped out. We just want them to be able to live in peace.”

Mike Gaworecki

 

Mike Gaworecki is based in San Francisco. His writing has appeared on BillMoyers.com, Alternet, Treehugger, Change.org, Huffington Post, and more. Mike started writing for Mongabay as a contributor on forests issues and joined the staff in September 2015.

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