Indigenous Brazilians Come Together To Defend Amazon Forest Against Fires

Sep 13, 2019
Originally published on September 13, 2019 6:39 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Brazil's Amazon, indigenous reserves help protect over 400 square miles of rain forest. Many of this year's forest fires were set by people who invaded indigenous lands. Catherine Osborn reports on how native Brazilians are forming alliances to fight back.

CATHERINE OSBORN, BYLINE: Bepto Xikrin is a 28-year-old schoolteacher from Brazil's Xikrin indigenous group. He lives in a village in the Amazonian state of Para that was covered by smoke from forest fires in the past few weeks. He spoke to me from there via WhatsApp.

BEPTO XIKRIN: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: "The smoke spread across all of the Xikrin land," Bepto said. The people who set the fires should not have even been allowed on the territory because it's a federal indigenous reserve.

XIKRIN: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: But it had been invaded by illegal loggers and squatters who want to claim the land for themselves. Bepto says police had been unusually slow to stop them. He blames the rhetoric of Brazil's president...

XIKRIN: Bolsonaro.

OSBORN: ...Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro has long said he thinks native Brazilians have too much land. His government cut funding for the environmental authorities, who should be able to stop invasions. So far this year, the number of forest fires on indigenous lands has shot up, 88% percent more than during the same period last year. Scientists say it points to a rise in trespassing.

ANDRE GUIMARAES: There is a vacuum of efforts from the federal government looking after these territories. And there is more invasions, more forest fires, more land grabbers.

OSBORN: Andre Guimaraes an agronomist with the Amazon Environmental Research Institute. He says Bolsonaro's actions since taking office in January signal to people who want to illegally slash and burn federal forests that they can get away with it. After international outcry last month about fires in the Amazon, Bolsonaro announced he would step up efforts to combat environmental crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: He pledged army support against illegal activities in the forest. While Bolsonaro was giving his speech, native Brazilians, including the Xikrin, were taking their own steps to protect their land. Bepto traveled over 200 miles to a village where 14 different indigenous groups held a three-day summit. Some of the tribes had fought each other in the past, but they recognized they were now facing a common threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRICKETS CHIRPING)

XIKRIN: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: "The majority were suffering land invasions," Bepto said, "and authorities were not defending the reserves the way Brazilian law requires."

XIKRIN: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: The group swapped strategies. Several of them, including the Xikrin, had worked with Brazil's indigenous affairs agency and with state prosecutors to sue for police protection. Another tactic the groups discussed was broadening their appeals for help. They recorded a video which they had subtitled in English.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

O-E PAIAKAN: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: In it, a Kayapo woman, named O-e Paiakan, speaks in front of the different groups, each in their own traditional body paint. She wears a crown of yellow feathers and has a red mask painted across her eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

PAIAKAN: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: "We're going to defend our way of life," she says, "of producing without destroying."

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

PAIAKAN: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: And the tribes called on the world to fight alongside them.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED TRIBAL MEMBERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

OSBORN: Bepto returned to his village. We worked with his brother to record another video, translating a message from their chief to state authorities.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: "The squatters are sending us death threats," he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED TRIBAL MEMBERS: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: A few days later, a judge ruled in favor of the Xikrin's case and ordered federal police to remove the invaders. Bepto says it shouldn't have to take all this for indigenous lands to be protected.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRICKETS CHIRPING)

XIKRIN: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: But as long as it does, he says they won't stop fighting to keep their land and to keep the forest standing.

For NPR News, I'm Catherine Osborn in Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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