Amazon wildfires threatening isolated Indigenous tribes, say advocates

The wildfires ripping through the rainforest in the heart of South America have heightened the existing threats faced by the Amazon's Indigenous Peoples, including tribes that exist in isolation from the outside world, according to advocates. 

There are worries fires could drive isolated tribes out of territory, causing conflict with settlements

A tree is engulfed by flames in the Chiquitania Forest in Santa Rosa de Tucabaca, on the outskirts of Robore, Bolivia, on Wednesday. While some of the fires are burning in Bolivia's share of the Amazon, the largest blazes were in the Chiquitanía region of southeastern Bolivia. (Juan Karita/The Associated Press)

The wildfires ripping through the Amazon rainforest in the heart of South America now threaten isolated Indigenous tribes, according to advocates. 

While most of the focus has been on the Amazon wildfires within Brazil's borders, flames are also raging in the forests of Bolivia and in the rainforest between Bolivia and Paraguay. 

The wildfires in the Amazon, most of them spawned in areas cleared for agricultural use, have reached an unprecedented level that is widely viewed as an environmental crisis given the rainforest's rich biodiversity, role as a carbon sink and its impact on the water cycles regionally and globally.

The wildfires have also heightened the existing threats faced by the Amazon's Indigenous Peoples, including tribes that exist in isolation from the outside world.

Jonathan Mazower, a spokesperson for Survival International, which advocates on Indigenous Peoples' rights, said the wildfires are threatening two isolated tribes in Brazil's Amazon — the Awá and the Uru Eu Wau Wau.

Mazower said, according to information the organization received from the neighbouring Guajajara people, wildfires are burning inside lands reserved for the Awá in the eastern Brazilian state of Maranhão.

"[The territory] is in the last area of forest in this region and it has been targeted by illegal loggers," he told CBC News.

Mazower said aerial maps also show the wildfires burning near the territory of the Uru Eu Wau Wau, which is in the western state of Rondônia which borders Bolivia. 

"[The fires] are not inside the reserve, where the uncontacted members live, but they are very close to it and certainly within the ancestral territory of this particular people," he said. 

"Their reserve has also been subject of many years of land invasions by farmers and ranchers."

The Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) said the fires were threatening Apyterewa Indigneous lands in the state of Pará, where some groups live in voluntary isolation. 

The statement said the fires in the state of Mato Grosso also threatened isolated groups that haven't yet been recognized by the Brazilian state. 

In this Aug. 26 photo, the land smoulders during a forest fire in Altamira in Brazil's Amazon. The fire is very close to Kayapo Indigenous land located on the Bau Indigenous reserve. (Leo Correa/The Associated Press)

Possibility of conflict

Amazon wildfires on the border between Bolivia and Paraguay are also threatening an isolated Indigenous tribe, said Adolfo Chávez Beyuma, co-ordinator for international co-operation for the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA).

Chávez Beyuma said neither Bolivia or Paraguay have established any emergency protocols to deal with the possibility that members of the Ayoreo nation, who live in isolation in the rainforest between the two countries, could flee their homelands because of the fire.

He said there could be a conflict between the Ayoreo emerging from the Amazon and people in settled in nearby communities, whom the Ayoreo could blame for the fires. 

"What are they going to do when the fire nears? They are going to find refuge and they are going to find nearby communities in Paraguay and Bolivia," he said. 

"They are going to see people clothed, they will think it's them and start firing arrows."

Chávez Beyuma said local guides from the same nation, who speak the same language, should be appointed to meet and help any fleeing members of the Ayoreo nation.

He said there should also be a supply of food known to the Ayoreo to avoid potential sickness from unfamiliar food. 

"[The governments] are not foreseeing the consequences that could cause deaths from eating the types of food that we are used to," he said. 

Bolivia's President Evo Morales talks on a phone as he looks out of a plane window to survey forests affected by fires in the Charagua province of Bolivia on Tuesday. The largest blazes in Bolivia are in the Chiquitanía region, a zone of dry forest, farmland and open prairies that has seen an expansion of farming and ranching. (David Mercado/The Associated Press)

Burns during drought conditions

At least 20,000 fires were burning across Bolivia as of Tuesday, and a total of 950,000 hectares had been burned so far this year according to Cliver Rocha, director of the national Forests and Lands Authority.

While some of the fires were burning in Bolivia's share of the Amazon, the largest blazes were in the Chiquitania region of southeastern Bolivia, a zone of dry forest, farmland and open prairies that has seen an expansion of farming and ranching in recent years. The Chiquitano dry forest is the territory of the Chiquitana Indigenous nation.

The wildfires have destroyed medicinal plants, fruit trees and areas sacred to the Chiquitana and it will have long-lasting consequences, said Chávez Beyuma.

Chávez Beyuma said the Bolivian government of Evo Morales had opened up large swaths of forest to please agro-business in the country and this led to the burns that have gotten out of control.

The Bolivian Friends of Nature Foundation has complained that the government ignored fire precautions needed at a time when the area — unlike the Amazon further north — is suffering drought conditions.


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him

with files from the Associated Press