In order to understand the science behind the recent mass-burning of the Brazilian Amazon, we must put this man-made catastrophe in the context of Brazilian politics. Hence, when Jair Bolsonaro became president of Brazil in January 2019, his developmental policies for the Brazilian Amazon and his negative views of its indigenous inhabitants in effect transformed Brazilian Amazonia into a worsening ecological disaster.
In recently released statistics by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, INPE) for the estimations of the Brazilian Amazonian forest fires represented an almost 30% increase in mass-conflagrations from 2018 to 2019 whereby 9,762 square kilometres (circa 3,769 square miles) were burned this year or an equivalent land mass of a little bit more than the island of Cyprus. The overall devastating effects of these mass-fires cannot be overstated. The Amazonian riverine system is by far the largest river system in the world with more than 1,000 tributaries, 17 of which are more than 1600 kilometres long. The Amazon Basin itself is more than 6.9 million square kilometres as a whole. It is colossal and massive, covering 40% of South America. In the Amazon region, there are as many as 390 billion individual trees consisting of more than 16,000 tree species. Two-thirds of Amazonia exists within Brazil, and within it, scientists believe there exists at least some 2.5 million insect species, 4,000 plant species, 5,600 fish species, 1,300 bird species, 430 mammalian species, 1,000 amphibian species, and 400 reptilian species. As such, the environmental costs would be extremely high if the largest and the most unique and the most complex terrestrial biome were to be lost by man-made destruction.
Environmental experts who have studied Amazonian rainforest destruction believe at least 80% of its present devastation are the result of the actions of Brazilian cattle-ranchers. These ranchers (rancheiros) were most likely the culprits of the mass-conflagrations in Brazil this year. Furthermore, we may point to the economic development policies of President Jair Bolsonaro who wants to open up the Brazilian Amazon to investors and those willing to develop the region. Bolsonaro’s political rhetoric is thereby implicitly allowing for illegal loggers, illegal miners, poachers, and illicit land-grabbers to invade indigenous lands and in some cases murder Amerindian peoples. The most recent assassination of a Brazilian Native, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, happened on November 1st, 2019 by illegal loggers on his tribe’s land of Araribóia, an area twice the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island or 4,130 square kilometres in the Amazonian state of Maranhão. The indigenous people of the Guajajara are some of the most numerous in Brazil, accounting for some 30,000 Amerindians. Paulo Paulino Guajajara belonged to his tribal group’s “Guardians of the Forest” (Guardiões da Floresta) who patrol their tribal lands in order to protect them from illegal invaders, such as the ones responsible for his murder.
The Brazilian Catholic Indigenist Missionary Council (Conselho Indigenista Missionario, CIMI) estimated that in 2018 murders of Brazilian indigenous peoples increased by 20% from 2017 with as many 135 cases and over the last thirty-years found there have been some 1,119 homicides against Brazilian Amerindians. In the majority, most of these murders occurred in the Brazilian states of Roraima and Mato Grosso do Sul. This is an ongoing genocide and Brazilian rancheiros wish to clear their lands of its indigenous inhabitants as well as burn Amazonian rainforest land in order to create more land for cattle grazing. The same may be said for Brazilian soy farmers and other Brazilian farmers (fazendeiros). Often times, gunmen are hired to eradicate the Native peoples on cattle and farm lands.
It is remarkable today, at the beginning of the 21st century, that such a genocide in Brazil is still occurring. There are so few Brazilian Amerindian peoples left in the country, only about 896,917 according to the latest 2010 IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica). Of these, Brazilian Indians belong to about 255 distinctive ethnic groups which in turn correspond to about 0.47% of the total Brazilian population. Of the almost 1 million Brazilian Natives, half of them live in the interior in the country on 600 indigenous reservations and others among them live elsewhere. Even more precarious are the uncontacted Amerindian groups who are thought to number some 100-distinct ethnic-groups in the thousands living near the Bolivian, Brazilian, and Peruvian borderlands.[i]
Moreover, President Bolsonaro’s political rhetoric favouring Brazilian Amazonian economic-development, is not only a detriment to the environment but also an existential threat to indigenous peoples. Bolsonaro’s dangerous proclamations have in effect given a “greenlight” for permitting illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal-land-grabbers and poachers to invade indigenous lands for their own benefits. Yet, if the mass-fires in the Amazon, and the Patanal (Brazil’s wetlands) continue to be tolerated by the Brazilian government, in the long term, the damage done to this most biodiverse region of the world, may become irreversible.
One should imagine the scale of the possible carbon releases such an ecological disaster as the mass-burnings of the Amazon has caused to the present. To give one example, one large Amazonian-tree may store as much as 3 to 4 tonnes of CO2 according to Oxford University scientist, Erika Berenguer, who is associated with Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI). By comparison, the Amazon rainforest as a whole may process as much as 18 billion tonnes of carbon per year.
As stated by renowned environmental scientist, Philip Fearnside: “Brazil’s Amazonian deforestation in June 2019 was 88 percent greater than for the same month in 2018, and deforestation in the first half of July was 68 percent above that for the entire month of July in 2018.” The evidence is clear, more needs to be done, and the world needs to pay attention before it is too late. Environmental activists such as Greta Thunberg are right to endure in their calls for raising the alarm bells about the current environmental crisis.
It must be recognized that the Brazilian government of President Jair Bolsonaro has unnecessarily accelerated and exacerbated Amazonian deforestation and Brazilian indigenous genocide. Organizations such the “Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America” (SALSA) have sent an open-letter (dated August 25th, 2019) about the recent mass-conflagrations in Brazil. In it, they stated: “Since taking office earlier this year, President Jair Bolsonaro and the ‘ruralist’ parliamentary block have sought to open indigenous lands up to mining and logging operations; have slashed the budgets and oversight potential of environmental agencies; have backed an ‘economic liberty’ suite of policies for agribusiness; have vowed that the government will not demarcate ‘one more centimetre’ of indigenous land in Brazil, and have taken steps to try to decertify (rob) existing indigenous reserves. The parliamentary assault on indigenous peoples and on Amazonian ecosystems is vast, coordinated, and has been decades in the making…As anthropologists who have the privilege of working with the originary peoples of Amazonia, we also have the obligation to condemn the racist rhetoric and genocidal policies pursued by the current Brazilian government.”
In 2019, the famous Brazilian indigenous leader, Ailton Krenak, was quoted as saying: “Future generations will have to be increasingly empowered to secure a place to live. Agribusinesses cannot go out consuming everything. Mining companies cannot go out consuming everything. In this way, there will come a time when they will consume everything up, including themselves…The protected areas—the lands of the quilombos [isolated Brazilian afro-communities], Native lands—are places we think need to be preserved as a common good for everyone. But they are bulldozing everything…They point fingers at others, but they are the true vandals—these miners and ruralists [ranchers and farmers]. They think they can undo everything and take it all away. Yet, this is stupid. A vital part of nature is burning which eliminates any common future we might have together.”
By J. P. Linstroth, author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015).
J.P. Linstroth has a PhD from the University of Oxford in Social and Cultural Anthropology and is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil.
[i] J. P. Linstroth (2015). “Brazilian Nationalism and Urban Amerindians: Twenty-First Century Dilemmas for Indigenous Peoples Living in the Urban Amazon and Beyond”. In Nationalism and Intra-State Conflicts in the Post-Colonial World, (ed.) Michael Fonkem. Lanham, MD: p. 438, Endnote 5