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News > Brazil

Brazil: Tenharim People, Guardians of Amazon, Battle Wildfires

  • A fire burns a tract of the Amazon jungle in Agua Boa, Mato Grosso state, Brazil September 4, 2019.

    A fire burns a tract of the Amazon jungle in Agua Boa, Mato Grosso state, Brazil September 4, 2019. | Photo: Reuters

Published 11 September 2019

“If not for those brigades, we would be covered in fires. We (would) lose our food supply, a number of natural products,” said Joao Sena Tenharim, a local chief.

When the flames begin to light up the night on the Tenharim tribe’s reservation in the Brazilian Amazon, the tribe sent their firefighters in order to protect their ancestral lands from the wildfires that are taking over the region.

US Foreign Affairs Committee Holds Hearing on Amazon Fires

Each year during the dry season, the Tenharim feel the threat that the wildfires pose to their lands, an immense territory in the southern portion of Amazonas state, the largest of Brazil’s nine states in the Amazon region.

To combat the threat, some years ago the tribe has set up its own firefighter task force, Prevfogo, a specialized group responsible for preventing and putting out the region's forest fires.

Like nobody else, they are familiar with the lands where they grew up—the rivers, the vegetation on the Tenharim/Marmelos Reservation, which encompasses about half a million hectares.

When the first flames began to color the horizon in the Tenharim reservation, the firefighters are already ready to put on their boots and their traditional yellow jackets, which features the silhouette of an anteater, one of the local species that is most threatened by the fires.

The 30 or so men comprising the fire brigades are the pride of the Tenharim reservation, a zone in which different Indigenous groups live, including the Jiahui, whose ancestral lands were occupied by white landowners several decades ago.

“They are the first, the courageous brigade members who go out to fight the fire,” chief Jupai Jiahui, the leader of one of the Jiahui villages, told EFE.

Thanks to the young Prevfogo men, Jiahui said, the Indigenous peoples on the reservation have learned to remove the undergrowth in a controlled way. Before, he said, the fires could easily get into the nearby forest because they didn’t have any idea how to keep them out.

“We need them. They’re here to combat the fire. They offer talks to us, because before we didn’t have the knowledge. We set fires (to burn undergrowth) and we burned the forests. We didn’t have any idea about anything,” Jiahui said.

Despite the intense rain only in recent days, this year's intense dry season has forced the firefighters to continue with their tireless battle against the fires in the planet’s “green lungs,” highly threatened by man-made deforestation and fires, as well as by so-called development in the supposedly protected area.

Some 44 percent of the forest fires registered so far this year in Amazonas state have affected Indigenous reservations, areas where hunter-gatherers and environmental conservation units live and work, according to figures recently released by the Environmental Protection Institute of Amazonas (Ipaam).

The Tenharim and other Amazon tribes are fighting not only the fires but also against the pressure from landowners in a conflict over land that some non-governmental organizations fear will keep increasing under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who favors greater extraction and agricultural exploitation of the Amazon region.

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