Last year’s fires in the Amazon captured the world’s attention. They raged across Brazil, engulfing the recently deforested Amazon jungle. Smoke darkened São Paulo’s skies more than a thousand miles away.
Ranchers, loggers and businessmen in the state of Pará organized simultaneous illegal blazes last year on Aug. 10, which they called “the day of fire.” It jump-started the wave of fires across the Amazon.
Fires in the Amazon are rarely unintentional: They’re man-made in order to clear pastures or recently deforested land.
In widespread protests last year, demonstrators demanded government action to stop the blazes, denouncing the destruction of the forest, the encroachment on Indigenous land, and the health risks for local communities. After weeks of international pressure, President Jair Bolsonaro reluctantly agreed to send in thousands of firefighting troops.
Now, as the dry season begins in the Amazon, the fires are starting again. Scientists believe this year’s fires could be worse than last year. Already, the number of fires last month was a 13-year high for June. Beyond the obvious environmental impact, there are major concerns over the toll these fires may take on peoples’ health, particularly for Indigenous communities already battling the coronavirus.
So far, there are no signs of the fires slowing down amid the pandemic. Bolsonaro has long promised to push development in the region. And with government monitoring and fines for illegal logging practically suspended, Brazil has seen a huge jump in the destruction of the Amazon over the last year. It’s nearly doubled. An area larger than the size of Delaware, according to an analysis by The World, was cut down between August 2019 and this past April.
Half of the deforestation this year has been on protected land, including Indigenous territories.
“If we have more deforestation, we can expect to have more fires. From August of last year, through this year, we are already in one of the years that we have had more deforestation since 2008.”
“If we have more deforestation, we can expect to have more fires. From August of last year, through this year, we are already in one of the years that we have had more deforestation since 2008,” said Ane Alencar, the director of science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute.
The fires also pose health risks.
“Whenever we have the fire season, we have an increase in hospitalization because of respiratory diseases,” said Marcia Castro, a professor and chair of the global health and population department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We may end up with a scenario where there are all those people suffering from respiratory diseases. The respiratory diseases increase the vulnerability to COVID[-19]. We also have the season of malaria coming up, and some people may need hospitalization. So, different layers of ways the health system can collapse in the middle of a pandemic.”
Many of the hospitals in the Amazon are already at capacity as COVID-19 has hit the region hard. Altamira is a prime example. Located along the Transamazon highway in the state of Pará, it’s the only city with an intensive care unit for hundreds of miles. Yet, it has only 18 beds and it serves a population of more than 400,000.
“Our reality is that we don’t have any open ICU beds. Our system is already collapsed. And there is a possibility that it can get much worse if the virus is not contained, and it spreads throughout the Indigenous territories.”
“Our reality is that we don’t have any open ICU beds,” said Dr. Renan Rocha Granato, during a phone interview in the middle of his shift in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at the Regional Hospital. “Our system is already collapsed. And there is a possibility that it can get much worse if the virus is not contained, and it spreads throughout the Indigenous territories.”
It’s possible it may do just that. Already, 407 tribal members have died in Brazil, according to the National Committee for Indigenous Life and Memory. Almost 10,000 Indigenous people have been infected, across 119 tribes. That number is rising exponentially.
According to reports, half of the residents of some Indigenous villages have been infected. Many leaders have already died, including Paulinho Paiakan, one of the most historic indigenous Brazilians.
More than 100 members of the Xavante tribe have come down with the virus in Mato Grosso do Sul.
The Yanomami have launched a global campaign to remove thousands of illegal miners from their land, who they say are not only threatening their land and environment but also pushing the spread of the coronavirus across their territory.
“These are already historically vulnerable populations. Not just biologically, in terms of their lower immunity to diseases, but also politically, because the state was always absent in terms of public policies,” said Indigenous lawyer Dinaman Tuxá. “But the Bolsonaro government has become even more absent, pushing decisions that have led to the shocking numbers of infected in the Indigenous populations.”
On Tuesday, Indigenous organizations filed an action with Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court to demand that the government take measures to protect Indigenous peoples from the pandemic, by removing illegal invaders from their territories and offering special health attention for all Indigenous peoples.
But the fires are on the horizon and many are concerned. Last year, the city of Novo Progresso, in western Pará, was ground zero.
“This is a region that was really impacted by the fires. We are very worried for this year, also as monitoring of deforestation in the region has decreased.”
“This is a region that was really impacted by the fires. We are very worried for this year, also as monitoring of deforestation in the region has decreased,” said Junio Martins de Oliveira, who works with the Kabu Institute, which represents 1,200 Indigenous Kayapó people who live on two territories near Novo Progresso and the Tapajós river.
Martins de Oliveira said fighting the coronavirus is the top priority now, as 20 of their members have come down with the virus. But the fires are coming.
Last year’s blazes burned some of the Kayapó land. Smoke choked their villages. Indigenous peoples say they hope the government will take action to stop farmers, loggers and land-grabbers from setting the fires. But there’s little political will. With even fewer government resources and less oversight due to the pandemic, communities are bracing for the worst.
According to Martins de Oliveira, members of the Kabu Institute met this week with environmental officials in Novo Progresso and asked if they would be taking any actions in Indigenous territories against deforestation and mining ahead of the fire season. They said they were short-staffed and didn’t have the means at the moment.
“That’s very concerning for us,” Martins de Oliveira said. “Because protecting Indigenous territories is not a priority for the government right now.”