Fighting Fire: The Indigenous Struggle For The Amazon

Fighting Fire: The Indigenous Struggle For The Amazon


The whole world is worried about the planet, but not Brazil. We made contact with whites before, and they enslaved us. Practically 70% is illegal. We are defending a sustainable forest. Our view of the forest is very different from the capitalist view. Do you think nature reserves are unproductive? For sure. If we were to live in the city, we wouldn’t know how to survive. It had indigenous people going into depression.  Our relatives are asking for help. The Amazon is burning, and everyone is outraged. These vandals came in and burned our village. But it’s especially sad for him and for the Brazilians. How dare you! Why do they have an eye on the Amazon? What do they want there? So if everyone is so angry, why is it still burning?  My name is Mariana Bernardes and I’m a Brazilian photographer and journalist and like the rest of the world, I was shocked by the images of the Amazon burning.  So I travelled to Rôndonia, a state in Brazil that is one of the worst affected by the recent fires and 70% of this state used to be covered in the forest. Today, it looks very different. We hear so many opinions about this forest from presidents and prime ministers to Swedish school kids. But I wanted to hear from the people whose home it actually is, the indigenous people of the Amazon. So I just arrived in Lapetanha, which is the home and village of the Paiter Suruí. They are really well known for how well they manage to keep their lands protected and how well they developed it in a sustainable way. The Paiter Suruís are a small tribe of around 1300 people, who call this part of the Amazon their home.  I met with Almir, the leader of the Paiter Suruís. I believe that when we … I mean, we human beings have a connection with nature, with the forest, this knowledge, is very good. When we defend the forest, it is not because we are defending space for the Paiter Suruí people, the importance of the forest is that it guarantees the future of the world. Indigenous communities, like the Paiter Suruís, have lived in the Amazon for millennia, so who better to teach us how to save it?  And it’s indigenous people who have been leading protests in defence of the Amazon, all across Brazil.  It’s time for the non-indigenous, you, to give us a hand and start fighting. Because the future is at stake and it’s not only ours. I want you to be aware of decolonisation, I want us to preserve all that remains together. We want respect, we are fighting for respect here. So, today is the Amazon Day here in Brazil and we’re in São Paulo where indigenous women gathered to march and protest against the fires in the Amazon, the actions of illegal loggers and the persecution of their people. The land is sacred to us. We want to take care of it, the ones that care about money are the farmers, and the miners, for their own use. They think we are the enemies, but we don’t want more than what’s ours by right, and that’s living in our lands, taking care of our animals and preservation.  The whole world is worried about the planet, but not Brazil.  The biggest proof of this is the Amazon. When I knew about it, all of us… it had indigenous people going into depression.  Our relatives are asking for help. So, that’s it.  Daily life in the village is a world apart from the polluted and crowded Brazilian metropolis and the foundation of this community is the collective. The rhythm of production and the relationship with the environment is a model of sustainability. Just as humans have life so does the forest. Therefore we must respect and preserve. The forest is also important because it provides everything we need to survive. We don’t know much about living in the white’s customs, we can’t survive living in the city. Now, here in the bush, we know.  The 7th of September is Brazil’s Independence Day, a day marked by military parades and patriotic celebrations. So, we are at the Independence Day celebration and you can actually hear people screaming and shouting and rooting for them. But this day is also significant for the Paiter Suruís people. Although for them it’s not a day to celebrate.  It was on this day that soldiers from the Brazilian army, then under the military dictatorship, made first contact with the Paiter Suruí.  Agamenon is one of the village’s eldest residents and remembers that day.  I was still a child when there was the first contact, maybe five years old. The contact changed our way of life, brought many diseases, also brought money, for which we have to work every day.  Ubiratã is a Paiter Suruí photographer who is using social media to tell the stories of his people. The view we have of non-indigenous is that their culture reflects individualism.  The Paiter people always worked and hunted in groups. Nowadays we see that many indigenous people hunt alone, that comes with capitalism. We made contact with whites before, and they enslaved us. And we killed them and fled into the woods; we didn’t want contact with the whites. The whites took the bowstrings and tied the Paiter up and threw them into the river. That’s why the Paiter warriors killed them and fled into the forest. But the violence towards the Paiter Suruís wasn’t always so direct. It was also about culture and lifestyle, and even food. On many occasions, the community opted for industrialised food, rather than the food produced in the fields, and it caused diseases within the community.  The sugar, the salt those things were not a part of our eating habits. So what has changed? What directly changed us was the impact that came through epidemics that nearly wiped out our people. Those were measles, the flu, and tuberculosis. Our people say that we were more than 5,000. During the time of contact, we became approximately 300 people. One of the most immediate threats to the Paiter Suruí is illegal logging.  We have been developing some projects, we have a surveillance team who are participating in the surveillance of the territory. They are also trained to get GPS data. If a logger enters the forest, they check it on the GPS, note it down and then that data is sent to the government surveillance office. It’s around 6 am right now and we have left Lapetanha, and we are going to Rondolândia which is the loggers’ county and the Suruís have a suspicion there are some illegal loggers trying to invade their lands. We just saw a couple of really big storages of wood. A lot of trucks coming out with like tons and tons of wood and down there is a really big city full of loggers and the biggest activity is illegal logging. I think they are saying that some of the areas that are more open in the middle, they have been touched.  They just found a really big piece of wood. This one that was hidden in the middle of the forest. So, for sure there are some illegal loggers around. Logging is big money and Brazil’s environmental protection agency, IBAMA, doesn’t seem to have the power – or the will – to stop it. We arranged to meet with an illegal logger, Franqueno, who bought land in the forest. How did you get here? I bought this land to get wood. I have people who work for me, who do this service. During the week, they cut. I order, they come and cut. Then I carry on, but practically 70% is illegal. What is the difference in the price for furniture and construction, for example? A wooden cubic metre is worth about R$ 2.500,00 reals ($600 US). I’m talking about a cubic metre of wood, that would be… from here to here. Do you sell a lot abroad too? Yes, but then when it’s exported you need to be able to issue a receipt.  I know of ways to be able to do that… We know ways to get a receipt to export. It’s only exported if it has a receipt. Loggers like Franqueno are small players in a huge industry. Once the trees are logged and the wood sold, the next step is to burn the rest down.  According to the Brazilian Public Prosecutor, on the 8th of August a group of around 70 farmers, loggers, and merchants, communicating on WhatsApp, lit fires at key points in the Amazon at the same time, orchestrating the most recent devastating fires. The government was alerted but did nothing.  Our income in Brazil is practically all agribusiness… So why have so many reserves, so much wealth that we can’t exploit? There are a lot of indigenous reserves, and for what? But do you think it is unproductive to have these nature reserves? For sure. And it’s not only what’s on the surface of the Amazon that is being exploited, it is also what is under it. In these reservations, there is an abundance of gold, diamonds, uranium, niobium, and rare land… and these territories are enormous. Illegal mining in Brazil has been described by NGOs as an ‘epidemic’. Mining not only causes deforestation, but highly poisonous mercury is often used in extraction of gold and then dumped, poisoning water supplies and destroying entire eco-systems. The Amazon as a profitable resource that should be mined, logged and burnt, to be sold off, is one view. But the indigenous people have a different perspective. Our view of the forest is very different from the capitalist view, where the land is seen as unproductive because there is no deforestation here, no ox here, no soy here. It’s not generating money for those guys, right? Yes.  Most of the cleared land from logging and fires is used to raise cattle and Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef. The biggest importers are China, the EU and the U.S. When news of the fires broke, the South American trade block – Mercosur – was negotiating a new trade deal with the EU. The EU seemed to react, with French President Macron taking the lead. We lack courage… We are not rising to the challenges we are facing or to the goals we have set for ourselves, in the fight against global warming and the fight for biodiversity. But despite all the strong statements, the trade deal which will fuel more deforestation is set to go ahead, and the EU, including France, is still importing Brazilian beef. Bolsonaro, on his part, was forced to take action to stop the fires, so he sent in the military. But the Brazilian military and the Amazon have a history. Leaked documents have exposed how Bolsonaro’s government is planning to restart a military dictatorship-era project named “Barão de Rio Branco” designed to populate the Amazon with non-indigenous people. The project uses national defence as a justification, claiming that because the Amazon is sparsely populated, it is more vulnerable to foreign invasions. The military even suggests that the Chinese are preparing to invade the country via the Amazon. But for indigenous people, it’s clear that it’s all about resources. We came from a war with loggers, rubber tappers, with people who were building Rondon’s telegraph… People from the construction of the BR364, which also had a huge impact on this region. Part of the Rio Branco project was the building of the huge BR364 highway which cuts through massive parts of the Amazon and has given access to more land and accelerated deforestation.   Sometimes we are threatened with death for trying to protect our land. Being threatened with death in your own home, right? It’s the end, it’s a terrible thing. According to NGO Global Witness, Brazil is the fourth deadliest country in the world for environmental activists. On September 8th, 2019, Maxciel Pereira a man who worked for a government agency tasked with the protection of indigenous lands and people was shot and killed, execution-style before members of his own family.  He was the latest in a string of targeted assassinations.  Indigenous activists and environmental advocates Cacique Emyra Wajãpi, Gilson Temponi, Eusebio Ka’apor, Osvalinda Pereira and husband Daniel Pereira are just some of the people recently killed for their activism.  Mopiri is a Paiter Suruí chief and elder. The threats to our people are constant. The pressure of deforestation and the government’s public policies are our concerns today.  Emmanuel Macron and Jair Bolsonaro publically clashed over the Amazon, fighting over who it “belongs” to.  The Amazon is our common heritage, it concerns us all, because we are all Amazonians. Some other countries, instead of helping, embarked on the lies of the media and behaved in a disrespectful manner and with a colonialist spirit. Bolsonaro may think he’s the victim of a colonial spirit, but for the Paiter Suruí, it’s Bolsonaro who is the coloniser.  Since the current president took his place, invasions into indigenous territory have increased, because, since his campaign, Bolsonaro has commented on legalising mining and other activities in our territory. Legal or not, corporations seem to be doing big business in the Amazon. Companies like JBS, the single biggest supplier of beef, chicken, and leather globally, has paid billions of dollars in fines for sourcing produce illegally and environmental violations.  JBS’s CEO, Joesley Batista, has even personally been arrested on charges of corruption, twice. But these fines are a drop in the ocean in relation to the money that can be made. The law of this jungle seems to be profit.  To businessmen and those who support deforestation, I say that greed for money is wiping out the future of our society and will have serious consequences. This government has just started, imagine what it will be like in 3 years? Indigenous genocide has increased. Land invasion has increased. It’s getting worse. Now I ask you, if you wouldn’t have any more indigenous, how are you guys gonna be?  Evangelical bloc – get out! Farming bloc – get out! Racists – get out! Bolsonaro – get out! Now that our people will unite. Now it is you who will have to run away. The climate change strike worldwide combined with the current situation in the Amazon ignited huge protests beyond Brazil, too, and millions took to the streets across the globe.  How are people thinking? Do they want a future? Do they believe in the future? I think as a father because my role is to guarantee this future. Young people, especially, have been at the forefront of the protest movement, organising school strikes and leading protests across the globe.  In the Paiter Suruí community, it’s no different. I am very sad because there are many invasions and burnings within our territory. I think a lot about the unity of the Paiter Suruí people, through our unity we’ll be stronger in the fight and we’ll guarantee our rights. We are a forest people, we have to preserve it.

10 thoughts on “Fighting Fire: The Indigenous Struggle For The Amazon

  1. It’s important for us to save and preserve our forests. There’s medicinal plants that are being destroyed by these malicious fires set by individuals that we will never get back. Also y’all South American don’t want a desert scretching across South America going right through Brazil and other countries in that region!

  2. Nossa que absurdo…..olha só, Mariana Bernades sua berne que inglês ruim ….o luladrão pagou um curso pra você por correspondência foi ?

  3. all lie these are the thieves who stole Brazil and lost the means to steal, now they are setting fire to the Amazon and blaming the government

  4. Great work with a sad reality. This is what many capitalist don't understand. That the wiping out of the Amazon not only kills the indigenous that protect it, but the oxygen we all need to breathe. Proof that capitalism kills nature, locals and the planet.

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