Sateré-Mawé indigenous men wearing face masks navigate the Ariau River at the Sahu-Ape community in Brazil's Amazonas State, home to most of the country's indigenous people, on May 5, 2020.
Photo: Getty

When the Amazon Rainforest burns, illegal loggers and miners are typically to blame. In the past, indigenous communities would patrol their lands every week or fortnight to find criminals looking to loot the forest. These patrols—usually made up of two to six men—deterred illegal land-grabbers from deforesting indigenous territories, which may cover as much as 9 million acres.

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Since April, though, these patrol have largely stopped. The risk of coronavirus is too high, posing a new threat to both the Amazon and its protectors. As for the bad guys destroying the forest, they haven’t ceased operations. In fact, data suggests they’ve grown more active in the Brazilian Amazon since the country entered lockdown. With no patrols to slow deforestation, the damage may dwarf what happened last year when nearly 3,400 square miles of forest—an area larger than the state of Delaware—were lost.

“People who want to seize indigenous lands or protected areas are finding it far easier to operate with impunity

,” Richard Pearshouse, the head of crisis and the environment at Amnesty International, told Earther. “Everyone was rightly terrified during the fire season last year, but I think we’re facing the very real possibility that this year is worse
.”

The rising threat of deforestation is being driven by the efforts of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Since he became president last year, Bolsonaro has directly harmed indigenous peoples by dismantling the country’s bureau for indigenous affairs, FUNAI, and stripping some indigenous territories of formal protections. Last summer, as the world gasped in horror at the burning of the Amazon, Bolsonaro initially pointed the finger baselessly at environmental groups and refused to accept financial aid to stop the fires. Meanwhile, indigenous peoples faced increased violence at the hands of those trying to steal and destroy their lands. Now, Bolsonaro is putting the military in charge of fighting fires in the Amazon, erasing what little authority environmental agencies had left.

“[This move] is a political ploy by a strong man to appear as though he’s the savior of the Amazon, but really this crisis of environmental enforcement is of his making,” Pearshouse said.

As a result of the president’s failed environmental policies, the Amazon is suffering tremendously. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has reached the highest levels since 2007 when the Brazilian space research institute, INPE, began tracking this destruction (though other, older data shows higher deforestation in the 1990s and early 2000s).

The forest has lost nearly 3,600 square miles over the past 12 months, a total 40 percent higher than the rate of deforestation experienced during the preceding 12 months. The worst could be yet to come: The dry season is about to begin, which is when deforestation usually ramps up. That’s because as the forest begins to dry, the number of fires used by people to clear land will likely explode.

Brazil’s failed response to the pandemic is also thanks to Bolsonaro. Brazil has the seventh-highest number of coronavirus cases and the most in Latin America. When it comes to the number of deaths, the country ranks sixth globally. The public health crisis gripping the nation is the result of a president who has ignored social distancing measures and fired those in his administration who dares to criticize his handling of the pandemic or suggests ways to improve it. The Lancet, a leading medical journal, wrote an editorial earlier this month calling Bolsonaro the country’s “biggest threat” to its covid-19 response and warned of the risks of illegal logging spreading covid-19 into remote indigenous communities in particular. The deforestation that’s likely to follow this government failure will only make matters worse.

The fires themselves are a menace, but so is the smoke that comes with them, particularly this year. Research has already found evidence that air pollution may increase a person’s chance of dying from covid-19. The last thing indigenous people living in the region—or even people living in seemingly far-off places that can still be blanketed in smoke—need is another health threat.

“We have a new pandemic related to fire and deforestation in the Amazon

,” Paulo Moutinho, co-founder of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, IPAM, told Earther. “When you combine that with the other pandemic situation provoked by covid-19, you have a disaster because with a lot of smoke coming from deforestation fires, this increases the risk of death for those infected by covid-19.”

This disaster is unfolding in real-time as the virus strikes regions around the Amazon. So far, at least 33 indigenous people have died from the virus across the Amazon as a whole, according to Rainforest Foundation. The organization is working to establish an emergency fund for indigenous peoples to provide immediate preventative care, medical supplies, and more to tribes in the region.

This is—at the most basic level—what communities need right now, Michael McGarrell, a member of Guyana’s Patamona Nation and human rights coordinator with the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA), told Earther. However, indigenous people around the Amazon also need proper government policies to ensure they’re involved in decision-making processes and responses to both the virus and deforestation.

“This virus has the potential of wiping out our populations,” McGarrell said. “Added to fire, [covid-19] has already disrupted our ways of life. We are not sure if the fire will be better or [worse].”

Ultimately, what indigenous people throughout the Amazon need is their land. They have already lost so much of their historical territories to genocide and colonialism. Now, as the pandemic bears down on the region, protected land would go a long way in helping keep the virus out of their communities. Beyond distance, it would also also help them maintain other resources essential to their health, such as the food and shelter the forest provides. In Brazil, at least, Bolsonaro is instead wiping away the last remaining indigenous land rights, opening the door to disease and destruction.

“The forest is the source of all our needs,” McGarrell said. “When it’s destroyed by fire or other means, it has a direct impact on our lives and livelihoods. Another large fire can mean our people suffer more.”

Research has shown that deforestation is lower in indigenous territories or protected areas in the Amazon. That benefits all of us by allowing trees to stand and store carbon rather than sending those stores up in smoke. We all have a lot to lose should the Amazon continue to shrink.

“We need world leaders to recognize our rights to our lands,” McGarrell said. “We have for generations demonstrated that we are better able to manage our lands.”

Indigenous peoples can’t shoulder this responsibility alone, especially now that the forest’s fiercest defenders won’t be able to safely take action to stop fires. Their patrols can only go so far without government support. We all depend on the Amazon Rainforest to keep our planet in good health. Right now, the forest’s protectors need the world to listen—and, more importantly, to take action. Not only to save the Amazon but to protect the lives of those who live within it.

Senior staff writer, Earther. All things environmental justice, please. I'm addicted to Stardew and love few things more than I love my cat.

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