Indigenous firefighters tackle Brazil’s blazes

Indigenous firefighters go into action against an Amazon blaze. Image: By courtesy of Amaury Tenharim

If the fires raging across the Amazon are controlled, much of the credit should go to the indigenous firefighters with intimate knowledge of the terrain.

SÃO PAULO, 8 November, 2019 − As global concern increases over the burning of the Amazon forest, the Brazilian government is keeping very quiet over one telling point: in many cases the people it is using to combat the flames are indigenous firefighters.

In August, the fires raging in the rainforest alarmed the world. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, variously blamed NGOs, the press and indigenous people for them, although there was plenty of evidence that many were deliberately caused by farmers and land grabbers wanting to clear the forest for cattle, crops and profit.

Bolsonaro eventually sent troops to try to extinguish the blazes. What he never acknowledged was that, far from starting the fires, hundreds of indigenous men are actually employed by a government agency to fight them, because of their first-hand forest knowledge.

Writing on the website Manchetes Socioambientais, Clara Roman, a journalist with Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), one of Brazil’s largest environmental NGOs, described the work of these firefighters. They are recruited by the Centre for the Prevention and Combat of Forest Fires, Prevfogo, a department of IBAMA, the official environment agency.

They number 700 and come from many different ethnic groups: the Tenharim, Paresí, Gavião, Xerente, Guajajara, Krikati, Terena, Kadiwéu, Xakriabá, Javaé, Karajás, Pataxó and Kayapó, including several tribes in the Xingu area.

Survival knowledge

Rodrigo Faleiros, of PrevFogo, who hires them, says indigenous people make better firefighters than local people, because “they know the territory well, they know how to survive in the forest and they understand the effects of fire”.

Their equipment is a backpack pump with 20 litres of water. They carry flails to beat the flames and wear protective goggles, fire-resistant shoes to tread on burning embers, leg protectors against snakes and thorns, and uniforms that are fire-resistant for up to two minutes.

They usually set out at night or in the early hours when the temperature in the burning forest is more tolerable and the humidity a little higher.

The work of the firefighters mixes modern technology with ancient knowledge. Prevfogo receives real time information on where the fires are from a satellite controlled by INPE, Brazil’s national space research agency. This is transmitted to the nearest firefighters’ unit.

“Far from starting the fires, hundreds of indigenous men are actually employed by a government agency to fight them”

Since it began hiring indigenous firefighters Prevfogo has gradually incorporated into its practices traditional wisdom on the dynamics and management of fires. These include the use of preventive controlled fires at the beginning of the dry season, when humidity is still high and the chances of the fire spreading are fewer.

These controlled fires burn up dry organic material, reducing the amount available which could fuel fires that get out of control when the dry season is at its height. Another practice is the use of firebreaks or clearings in the forest where the fire finds no organic material and so dies out.

But the number of fires this year is a record, and the effects of climate change are not helping, as the rains that traditionally start in September have been delayed and average temperatures all over Brazil are higher than usual.

ISA researcher Antonio Oviedo says that because of the increase in deforestation, plus climate change and the present political context, the number of fires that turn into forest fires has increased. Even when it is not clearcut, humidity has fallen as the forest gets degraded by illegal logging.

An increasing number of fires are inside indigenous areas, traditionally the most intensively preserved areas, whether in the rainforest or in other areas of Brazil. In August this increase amounted to 182% more fires than in 2018. Bolsonaro’s (literally) inflammatory rhetoric, which has encouraged the invasion of indigenous reserves, has contributed.

Farming tool

Most of the fires occur in areas that have been invaded by illegal loggers and miners. Indigenous people use fire as a tool for their agriculture. They burn at the right time, in the right place, to guarantee flowering, fruiting and also refuge for the wild animals they need to hunt.

The fires that raged through the Amazon between July and September and are now devastating a large area of Brazil’s wetlands, known as the Pantanal, are destructive, harming habitats, killing wildlife and drying out the forest.

In September deforestation alerts were almost 100% higher than in the same month of the previous year. INPE data revealed that almost 1500 sq. kms of forest were cleared, compared to just over 700 sq. kms in 2018.

Deforestation already accounted for 44% of Brazil’s carbon emissions in 2018, according to SEEG, the System of Greenhouse Gas Emissions of the Climate Observatory. This year they will almost certainly be higher. − Climate News Network