Brazil: Authorities stand by as fires started by loggers threaten tribe

"Wildfires in Brazil are often started by loggers as a means of claiming territory and displacing tribes."
"Wildfires in Brazil are often started by loggers as a means of claiming territory and displacing tribes."
© Survival International

Fires – almost certainly started by logging gangs – are raging across large areas of Maranhão state in Brazil. Despite global calls for action to protect the pre-Amazon forest and local uncontacted Awá tribespeople from being wiped out, so far the authorities have done very little to contain the blaze.

The fires were started approximately two weeks ago. Local Awá Indians have made repeated efforts to extinguish them, only to find more fires starting nearby. This pattern indicates conscious human efforts to set the forest alight, rather than natural dry season wildfires. Elsewhere in Brazil, loggers have been known to start fires to try and force indigenous people from the land.

This fire follows on from a similar incident in Arariboia last month, which was also extinguished long after it had started. It is believed that that fire was also started by loggers on the territory of a group of uncontacted Awá.

One Awá man said: “What will we do with no food and no forest? The fire is destroying our animals, and we are very worried. The loggers are setting our forest on fire – we’ve seen armed loggers! We try to put out the fires in one place and they spring up in another.”

"Many Awá in the region have no contact with the wider world and are highly vulnerable to external threats like disease"
"Many Awá in the region have no contact with the wider world and are highly vulnerable to external threats like disease"
© Domenico Pugliese/Survival

The Maranhão state government has sent only minimal support to the region to save the forest and the local Awá. This is consistent with their past attitudes towards tribes, and may be the result of close ties between some local and regional government officials and the powerful logging mafia.

In a speech to ranchers earlier this year, Maranhão state deputy Fernando Furtado said that Amazonian Indians are: “a bunch of little gays” and that they should die of hunger. Racist attitudes of this sort are not uncommon even amongst politicians in Brazil.

Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples, is calling on the Brazilian authorities to do more to save the Awá from the fires and to assist them in their efforts to preserve the rainforests. Tribal people are the best conservationists and guardians of the natural world, but when they are abandoned or ignored by those in power, they stand little chance of saving either themselves or their natural environment from destruction.

Survival director Stephen Corry said: “The handling of this fire is business as usual from the logging mafia that runs rampant in Maranhão. As long as there are powerful vested interests determined to drive tribal peoples from their ancestral lands and ignore their rights in order to exploit the Amazon, catastrophes like this will continue to happen. Survival is doing all that it can to bring the plight of the Awá to wider attention and pressing for more action to put out these fires.”