One indigenous community is counting the social costs of Amazon fires and conflict

amazon fires hurt indigenous people in brazil Members of the Huni Kuin community survey the damage after a fire on August 22. Photo: Centro Huwã Karu Yuxibu via Facebook

The cultural center of Huwã Karu Yuxibu was the educational and spiritual home of Brazil’s indigenous Huni Kuin people. Located 50 kilometers from Rio Branco, the capital city of the Amazonian state of Acre, it was built in 2015 and provided a focus for agroecological knowledge, traditional medicine, and cultural ceremonies for the community. However, on the afternoon of August 22, Huwã Karu Yuxibu was burned along with trees, drinking well, and the medicinal and food gardens of the Huni Kuin people.

Many of the Huni Kuin people who live

near the center were previously displaced from the Brazilian-Bolivian border, where they had lost territory to <a href="">competing land interests</a> in the Amazon.</p> <p>Across Brazil, there was an <a href="">84-percent increase in fires</a> between 2018 and 2019, the greatest number of registered fires in seven years. Over half of these were in the Amazon, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (Inpe). In the state of Acre, there have been a staggering 2,498 separate outbreaks, an increase of 176 percent from the previous year.</p> <p>The Huni Kuin community are well known to us, and articulated their ongoing struggle for territorial autonomy at the launch of our <a href="">major research project</a> in February. In April, they made it clear to researchers and students at the Federal University of Acre that they are determined to preserve their cultural identity and practices, underpinned by the Huwã Karu Yuxibu center.</p> <p>The community&#8217;s chief, Mapu Huni Kuin, told us that 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 center are symbolic of the social and cultural conflict that lies at the heart of the Amazon fire crisis.</p> <h2>Legacy of marginalization</h2> <p>The Amazon is a <a href="">complex ecosystem</a>. For centuries it has been home to indigenous communities, descendants from freed slaves, small riverbank and fishing communities, rubber tappers and peasant farmers who depend on the cycles of the trees, soils, and rains for their individual and collective livelihoods.</p> <p>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. The rubber boom of the mid-19th century and the subsequent wave of cattle ranching led to the further expulsion of indigenous people from territories that they are yet to recover. The legacy of this is still felt in the marginalization of so many of the Amazon’s residents today.</p> <p>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 sugarcane plantations in Brazil for bio-ethanol exports with <a href="">enthusiastic international backing</a>, the construction of <a href="">huge dams for hydroelectric power</a>, the dedication of an area the size of Germany to soybean crops, new palm oil plantations, and the westward expansion of cattle pasture for meat production.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="754" height="423" src="" alt="Livelihoods and cultures destroyed. Centro Huwã Karu Yuxibu via Facebook" class="wp-image-23330" srcset=" 754w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 754px) 100vw, 754px" /><figcaption>Livelihoods and cultures destroyed. Centro Huwã Karu Yuxibu via Facebook </figcaption></figure> <p>Alongside this trajectory is the increasing number of illegal land invasions by timber merchants, cattle ranchers and the armed gunmen that accompany them. The culture and practices of indigenous people has put them at odds with the logic and strategy of agribusiness and its representatives in government. Land-related conflicts increased by 36 percent between 2017 and 2018 in Brazil, with 960,630 people the victims of land-related disputes.</p> <p>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.</p> <h2>Protections eroded</h2> <p>Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has not hidden his intention to roll back protections for the Amazonian region and exploit its mineral resources. This follows on from his election campaign vow not to grant one more centimeter of land to indigenous people.</p> <p>In an interview with Ricardo Augusto Negrini, a public prosecutor for the Amazonian state of Pará in August, which we did as part of our research, he pointed to a worrying correlation between severe funding cuts for public environmental agencies and rising figures of illegal logging and land-grabbing in the region. He said government rhetoric in favor of large farmers and mining interests had compromised the credibility of agencies tasked with environmental protection and emboldened those intent on land-grabbing.</p> <p>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:</p> <p>&#8220;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.&#8221;</p> <p>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 under its canopy. Thousands of communities remain determined to resist the ongoing commercialization of the trees, water, soil and minerals of the Amazonian region by local and international interests.</p> <p>Back in Acre, Ixã Txana, a member of the Huni Kuin community, made a public appeal on Facebook for support to rebuild the community center, and replant the medicinal herbs, trees, and crops.</p> <p>&#8220;It is very sad to see what we are experiencing 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 we plant.&#8221;</p> <p>While the global importance of the forest’s carbon stocks has captured headlines, the biodiversity of the Amazon includes myriad human cultures and experiments in sustainable extraction, agro-ecology, and agroforestry. 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. All of which, unfortunately, are on the rise in today’s Brazil.</p> <img loading="lazy" src="" alt="The Conversation" width="1" height="1" style="border: none !important; box-shadow: none !important; margin: 0 !important; max-height: 1px !important; max-width: 1px !important; min-height: 1px !important; min-width: 1px !important; opacity: 0 !important; outline: none !important; padding: 0 !important; text-shadow: none !important"> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="alignleft"><img loading="lazy" width="300" height="24" src="" alt="the conversation brazil article" class="wp-image-398" srcset=" 300w, 768w, 1024w, 2000w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /></figure></div> <h6 style="text-align:right">Originally published on<br><a href=""><strong>The Conversation</strong></a></h6> <p>

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Brian Garvey

Lecturer Work, Employment and Organisation, University of Strathclyde

Jose Alves

Professor, Department of Geography, Federal University of Acre

Maria de Jesus Morais

Professor, Center of Philosophy and Human Sciences, Federal University of Acre

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