Deforestation, fire and land grabbing impose fear on indigenous people and surround isolated groups


The monochromatic horizon, awash with smoke wherever you look and for how long you look, denounces unbearable days in Lábrea, in the south of the Amazon. Fire licks indiscriminately deforested areas in the Amazon, in one of the most active arcs of devastation in the biome in the final stretch of the mandate of Jair Bolsonaro (PL).

In the first six days of September, the satellites of Inpe (National Institute for Space Research) register 1,142 hotspots in Lábrea, a number lower only than that recorded in São Félix do Xingu (PA). The city of Amazonas accounts for one in ten fires in progress in the country in those days.

Smoke and ash permeate the sky, streets, houses and clothes. The day doesn’t seem to start right — and it ends the same way it starts, in the same tone.

Even used to this scenario in the months of August and September, the residents of Lábrea and neighboring communities are uncomfortable and impatient. They notice a year much worse than the previous ones. In five days of September, there were 15,000 fires across the entire Amazon, or 89% of all that was recorded in the entirety of September in 2021.

Fire and smoke don’t just surround the city. The advance of deforestation, degradation and fires — carried out by ranchers who extend their domains and by land grabbers accustomed to working on public lands — has also surrounded isolated indigenous people in the south of the Amazon, as well as villages in the indigenous land closest to Lábrea, the Caititu, and settlements next to the Transamazonian.

The region as a whole has six incidences of isolated peoples, according to Focimp (Federation of Indigenous Organizations and Communities of the Middle Purus). The advance of deforestation by farmers and land grabbers, with uncontrolled fire, leaves these indigenous people in a situation of extreme vulnerability, according to Focimp.

Helplessness has the hand of the State. During the Bolsonaro government, Funai (Fundação Nacional do Índio) started to hold the renewal of ordinances that restrict the use of and access to territories where indigenous people live and circulate in isolation, until there is an end to any demarcation processes.

This is the case of the Jacareúba/Katawixi indigenous land, in the region of Lábrea and Canutama (AM). The territory is glued to the Caititu land and partly overlaps the Mapinguari National Park.

The MPF (Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office) states that the last usage restriction ordinance expired in December 2021. In March 2022, the MPF issued a recommendation charging Funai to renew it.

The report did not find acts of renewal of the restriction of use, and Funai did not respond to questions about whether or not it had edited a new protection measure, nor to other questions sent.

The Bolsonaro government’s omission is soon assimilated by those who want to advance into these territories.

“Before, riverside people and other people warned about sightings of isolated people. Now, in recent years, they do not, with the intention that the area is not restricted or demarcated”, says chief Zé Bajaga, 60, who presides over Focimp .

Based on deforestation data from April to June 2022, Imazon (Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazônia) concluded that the Mapinguari Park was the most threatened conservation unit in the Amazon, due to the high incidence of deforestation on the edges. The Jacareúba/Katawixi land was the fourth most threatened.

Any recent map of deforestation or fires shows red alerts in the region called Amacro (southern Amazonas, Rondônia and Acre).

Overland, the red spots of a map are evident. Along the stretch of the Transamazon Highway (BR-230) that connects Humaitá to Lábrea —there are 215 km without asphalt, in a bad state of conservation—, the scenario is of forest degradation on both sides.

A common tactic is the maintenance of vegetation on the side of the road, to hide the devastation in the forest. It is so much fire, so often, that it is almost impossible to distinguish columns of smoke; everything becomes one.

The actions of farmers and land grabbers continue despite the presence of a team from the National Public Security Force, linked to the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, in Lábrea. In communities surrounded by deforestation and fire, the conclusion is one: the National Force is incapable of putting out fires and insufficient to inhibit criminal actions.

So much so that fear spread through villages and settlements accessed from the Trans-Amazonian highway.

“These ‘gauchos’ are on the edge of the indigenous land, they are dangerous. They have maps in their hands, in areas that they say are vacant, cutting down and placing cattle”, says an indigenous from a village in the Caititu land, who asks not to be identified.

Caititu has 1,100 apurinã, jamamadis and paumaris living in 24 villages, 18 of which are closer to Lábrea. The fire even reaches the edges of the villages closest to the city.

This is the case of an area that has been burned for the construction of houses for a subdivision. Faced with the lack of control of the flames and the inability of the National Force —triggered twice— to control the flames, indigenous people had to act to put out the fire, which almost reached the community’s wooden poles.

In one of the four villages visited by the report, the indigenous people complained about the beginning of a deforestation front for the occupation of the area by oxen — and the truculence adopted in practice.

Maria dos Anjos Nogueira, 65, lives in one of the Caititu villages closest to Lábrea. According to her, Funai practically does not appear in the place. “Often, deforestation and fire advance through the indigenous land. We can’t do anything. And nothing happens.”

The pressure is not limited to indigenous lands. Leaders of settlements on the side of the Trans-Amazonian, at the confluence with the Caititu land, denounced death threats by land grabbers who felled, burned and occupied nearby areas. According to these leaders, those responsible for the projects are from Rondônia.

At Focimp’s headquarters in Lábrea, chief Zé Bajaga tells the Sheet that he and his family suffer constant death threats.

“It’s these invaders,” he says. “I’ve had two calls this year. In one, the person said, ‘Be careful, you’re thinking we don’t know you and your family? You could disappear.’

Funai, where it has worked, has stopped monitoring the action of invaders in the middle Purus, according to Bajaga. “The model they have now is to persecute indigenous leaders.”

The leader of Focimp says that there are already vast areas without forest, which pushes deforestation closer and closer to conservation units and indigenous lands.

The report asks Bajaga how he views threats. “I’m not afraid of dying,” he replies.

The chief fears, however, for the isolated indigenous people and says that there are reports of murders by invaders, although without possible proof in a field survey carried out by other indigenous people.

Funai refused to provide the Sheet the documents that support the process for issuing an ordinance that restricts access to Jacareúba/Katawixi land. The request was made via the Access to Information Act.

To justify the secrecy, the agency stated that the disclosure “potentially puts the life, safety and health of this indigenous people in voluntary isolation at risk”. “Use restriction ordinances in general aim to safeguard the lives of isolated indigenous peoples who have been reported in the area, given their high vulnerability.”

According to Funai, a ban on the area is not based on a claim for demarcation, but on the need to locate and monitor the isolated group, whose presence is “reported, although not confirmed, in compliance with the precautionary principle”.

The report was supported by the Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

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