In August 2019, reports from NASA and NGOs drew the world’s attention devastating forest fires in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. The fires have shed light on the plight of the indigenous communities of the rainforest, who are hit by both the fires and the political circumstances in the region.
The Amazon fires resulted from a rise in illegal land grabbing and logging. Loggers in the area use a technique known as “slash and burn”, a land-clearing method that involves the cutting and burning of plants. The land is cleared in order to make room for agriculture, livestock, logging and mining. The technique leads to increased deforestation and carries a high risk of forest fires in the dry season. The large increase of the fires and deforestation in the Amazon increased the threat of global warming and related environmental issues.
The majority of the Amazon rainforest lies in Brazil. In 2000, a plan by the Brazilian government to protect the rainforest resulted in the gradual decline of deforestation. However, when President Jair Bolsonaro came into power in 2019, his administration reversed course on these environmental policies. By summer 2019, the deforestation reached its greatest height in over a decade.
The encroachment of illegal loggers and mining companies has particularly affected the indigenous populations of the Amazon, amplifying the persecution they have suffered since deforestation began in earnest during the 1980s. In 1988, the Brazilian constitution was re-written following the end of decades military rule. The new constitution, which reflected the visions of a democratically run government, automatically granted the indigenous people permanent possession of the lands they traditionally occupied. Unfortunately, indigenous lands that have been granted demarcation still face frequent illegal invasions by settlers and mining and logging companies.
During his campaign for the presidency, Bolsonaro’s platform showed little regard for the indigenous population of Brazil. His key policies included revoking the protected status of indigenous reserves, opening the land for large-scale mining and agribusiness. Since taking office, the Bolsonaro administration has made enacted some of these campaign promises. The administration has made significant changes to the environmental policies that were seen to be “suffocating the economy”. One of Bolsonaro’s first acts as president was to shift the power to regulate and create indigenous reserves, moving this power from the National Indian Foundation Agency to the Agriculture Ministry. As a result, throughout 2019, indigenous populations faced increased persecutions and attacks on their land.
Bolsonaro’s policy changes have correlated with an increase in deforestation and attacks on indigenous people. Illegal loggers and land grabbers continue to encroach on indigenous lands in their attempts to clear trees in the Amazon. Despite reports of these actions, the government denies their policy changes have resulted in the activities of the illegal loggers.
In January 2019, the administration vowed to put a stop to the illegal practice. However, a month later, NGO Reporter Brasil, found that 14 fully protected indigenous territories are under attack from landgrabbers and illegal loggers, with no visible government protection. In the year that has passed since Reporter Brasil’s findings, there no signs of slowing.
The indigenous people are facing increasing rage, hate, prejudice and intolerance from surrounding areas, leading to several deaths. In 2019, ten indigenous people were killed by groups conducting illegal encroachment. Seven among the ten killed were indigenous leaders working to protect the forest and non-contact tribes within the rainforest. Despite the continuous calls to halt increasing violence against the indigenous people, there has been no real effort from the government to protect or support them.
The government’s inaction, and the Bolsonaro administration’s attitude towards the indigenous community suggest it is unlikely that they will get the reassurances they need. It will most likely take international pressure to stop the killing and persecution of the indigenous people and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.