Amazon Fires Threaten 'World's Most Endangered Tribe' As Campaigners Say Indigenous Fire Departments Are Being Stopped: 'These People Depend on the Forest'

Fires in the Amazon rain forest are threatening the Awá people—an indigenous group non-profit group Survival International has described as the "most endangered tribe" in the world.

Around 80 isolated individuals of this group live in the Araribóia Indigenous reserve in the Brazilian state of Maranhão. This reserve—located in the eastern Amazon—has been already been heavily deforested and now fires have been spotted in the final remaining areas of rain forest where the Awá live, The Guardian reported.

The majority of fires in the Amazon are deliberately started by humans. For example, farmers cut down trees to make way for agriculture, and then wait for the dry season—which runs roughly from August to November—to ignite fires to clear the land. This means the fire is a direct result of deforestation.

Brazil has experienced a large spike in the number of wildfires this year in comparison to 2018, with more than half of them occurring in the Amazon biome. There have been nearly 30,000 separate fires recorded in August alone—the highest figure for this month since 2010—according to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Data from INPE shows multiple fires burning inside the Araribóia reserve, although this number appears to be reducing. Local people have reported the fires there were started by heavily armed loggers who are now preventing responders from accessing the area.

"To make it harder, they are stopping the indigenous fire department from combating the fires," Tainaky Tenetehar, 34, a coordinator for a volunteer indigenous force that patrols the reserve—known as Guardians of the Forest—told The Guardian.

Environmentalists are becoming increasingly concerned with the administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing the government of encouraging deforestation and emboldening those who want to exploit the forest for commercial gain.

During his time in power, Bolsonaro has moved to weaken government agencies that are responsible for protecting the rain forest, as well as regulations covering indigenous lands and nature reserves. Bolsonaro sees these kinds of regulations as in impediment to economic growth in the Amazon—60 percent of which lies in Brazil.

Indigenous lands are commonly targeted by land grabbers as they are often very remote and unprotected.

After increasing international pressure, Bolsonaro issued a decree banning fires for 60 days in the Amazon. However, critics of the move say it will make little difference and is nothing more than a symbolic gesture.

When asked if the recent spike in forest fires in the Amazon region was linked to the environmental policies of Bolsonaro, Ricardo Mello, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) Amazon program, told Newsweek:

"Data speaks for itself: Brazil saw a peak in deforestation, followed by a peak of fires. Indigenous peoples are threatened and killed. The environmental governance is weakened month after month. The connection is evident."

The fires in the Amazon are not only threatening the Awá. Antenor Vaz, a consultant on indigenous peoples, said that 131 fires were identified in various indigenous reserves from August 15 to August 20.

On the other side of Brazil, the reserve of the Uru Eu Wau Wau tribe—some of whom remain uncontacted—has also been ravaged by fires

"Most of these people are constantly fleeing, they are constantly being threatened," Vaz told The Guardian. "These people depend on the forest and as fire kills the animals they feel completely desperate with the situation."

Campaign groups are worried that the latest outbreak of fires could wipe out the uncontacted Awá people—who have long been threatened by illegal loggers who are destroying their forested lands.

"These fires are now not just an environmental catastrophe, they're also potentially genocidal," Survival International Director Stephen Corry said in a statement. "By encouraging the land invaders and ranchers who set these fires, President Bolsonaro is signing a death warrant for the uncontacted tribes whose homes are going up in flames. If their forest is destroyed, they simply won't survive."

History and research has shown the most effective and lasting method for protecting rain forests is to support the territorial land rights of the Indigenous people who live there, Laurel Sutherlin, a spokesperson from the Rainforest Action Network, told Newsweek.

"Unfortunately, the current government in Brazil is openly hostile to both indigenous rights and environmental protection, so international support directly to indigenous groups is more important now than ever," he said.

Much of the forest area in the dryer regions of the rain forest that have been badly affected by deforestation lie in indigenous territories, Scott Stark, an expert in Amazon Forest Ecology and climate change from Michigan State University, told Newsweek.

"The human toll is intense," he said. "The anti-indigenous sentiment promoted by the government—including actively threatening these lands' legal status, a Bolsonaro campaign promise—and the desire to convert this land are now acting in consort, and many of these peoples are under current assault in this firestorm of forest conversion."

"It sometimes seems lost in environmental reporting on the Amazon that there is a large movement in Brazil that is on the front lines fighting for the preservation and sustainable management of the Amazon," he said. "International efforts to help would be well served supporting these people, indigenous communities, and other allies in this work."

Amazon fires
View of a burnt area of forest in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, in the Amazon basin, on August 27, 2019. JOAO LAET/AFP/Getty Images