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Amazon in flames: Brazil’s Huni Kuin indigenous people count the social costs of fire and conflict

Members of the Huni Kuin community survey the damage after a fire on August 22. Centro Huwã Karu Yuxibu via Facebook

The cultural centre of Huwã Karu Yuxibu was the educational and spiritual centre of Brazil’s indigenous Huni Kuin people. Located 50km from Rio Branco, the capital city of Acre, a state within the Amazon rainforest, it was constructed in 2015 and provided a focus for agroecological knowledge, traditional medicine cultivation and cultural ceremonies for the community. But on the afternoon of August 22, Huwã Karu Yuxibu was burned along with trees, the well, and the medicinal and food gardens of the Huni Kuin people.

Many of the Huni Kuin people who live near the centre have been previously displaced from the Brazilian-Bolivian border where they lost territory to competing land interests on the Amazonian frontier.

Across Brazil, there was an 84% increase in fires between 2018 and 2019, the greatest number of registered fires in seven years. Over half of these have been in the Amazon according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. In the state of Acre, there have been a staggering 2,498 separate outbreaks, an increase of 176% from the previous year.

The Huni Kuin community are well known to us, and articulated their ongoing struggle for territorial autonomy at the launch of our major research project in February. In April, they made clear to researchers and students at the Federal University of Acre of their determination to preserve their cultural identity and practices, underpinned by the Huwã Karu Yuxibu.

The cacique (chief), Mapu Huni Kuin, told us the community has called on the government to investigate the cause of the fire, and invited a research visit in the coming weeks. The images they shared on social media of the scorched trees, gardens, medicinal plants, and the centre are symbolic of the social and cultural conflict that lies at the heart of the Amazon fires.

Livelihoods and cultures destroyed. Centro Huwã Karu Yuxibu via Facebook

Legacy of marginalisation

The Amazon is a complex ecosystem. For centuries it has been home to indigenous communities, African descendants, riverbank and fishing communities, rubber tappers and peasant agriculturalists who depend on the cycles of the trees, soils and rains for their individual and collective livelihoods.

The presence of many of these distinct communities within the forest bears the hallmarks of colonial incursions by Europeans, as their violence and diseases decimated the original dwellers of the Amazon. Then the rubber boom of the mid-19th century and cattle ranching led to further expulsion of indigenous people, like the Huni Kuin, from territories that they are yet to recover. The legacy of this is still felt keenly in the marginalisation of so many of the Amazon’s residents today.

The 21st-century commodity boom that underpins so much of the world’s green economy has put new pressures on the Amazonian frontier. It has led to a revival of massive scale sugar cane plantations in Brazil for bio-ethanol export with enthusiastic international backing, the construction of huge dams for hydroelectric power, the dedication of land equivalent to the area of Germany to soya, new palm oil plantations, and the westward expansion of cattle pasture for meat production.

Read more: Blood in bio-ethanol: how indigenous peoples' lives are being destroyed by global agribusiness in Brazil

Alongside this trajectory is the increasing number of illegal land invasions by timber merchants, cattle ranchers and the armed merchants that accompany them. The culture and practices of indigenous people has put them at odds with the logic and strategy of large farmers, agribusiness and their representatives in government. Land-related conflicts increased 36% between 2017 and 2018 in Brazil with 960,630 people the victims of land-related disputes.

In this context the large increase in recent fires must be distinguished from the historical burnings by indigenous groups, used to produce modest clearings for their own food consumption. Instead, they should be considered as criminal actions by landowners, land grabbers, loggers and agribusiness in order to appropriate new property and undermine territorial claims by Amazonian communities.

Read more: Amazon fires: Indigenous people show fire can be used sustainably

Protections eroded

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has not hidden his intention to roll back protections for the Amazonian region and exploit its mineral resources. This followed from his election campaign vow not to give one more centimetre to indigenous people.

In an interview with Ricardo Augusto Negrini, public prosecutor for the Amazonian state of Para in August, which we did as part of our research, he pointed to a worrying correlation between severe resource cuts to public environmental agencies and rising figures for illegal logging and land seizures in the region. He said government rhetoric in favour of large farmers and mining interests had compromised the credibility of agencies tasked with environmental protection and emboldened those intent on land seizure.

Tackling a blaze in Rio Branco, in the Amazonian state of Acre. Firefighters Acre/EPA

In Acre, cattle ranchers have opened up new swathes of forest with the public support of the state’s governor, Gladson Cameli, who recently declared:

If someone is in the countryside and is being fined by the Acre Environment Institute (for illegal deforestation) let me know, because I will not allow them to harm those who want to work. Let me know and don’t pay any fines, because it’s me now.

If there is something to be salvaged from the ashes of the fires still sweeping across the Amazon it is greater attention to the existence, value and meaning of the lives lived within its canopy. Thousands of communities remain determined to resist the ongoing commercialisation of the trees, waters, soil and minerals of the Amazonian region by local and international interests.

Back in Acre, Ixã Txana, a member of the Huni Kuin community, made a public appeal on Facebook for public support to rebuild the community centre, replant the medicinal herbs, trees and crops.

It is very sad to see what we are passing through today. We are working as indigenous people … in peace, with love, in happiness, not to destroy the forest. We want to plant, cultivate, and care for the soil in which plant.

While the global importance of the forest’s carbon has captured headlines, the biodiversity of the Amazon includes myriad human cultures and experiments in sustainable extraction, agro-ecology and agro-forestry. Their potential to contribute to the building of a more socially and environmentally committed future for all of us is threatened by each fire, each invasion and each killing related to land conflict that all, unfortunately, are on the rise in today’s Brazil.

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