Agony of tribes who act as guardians of the Amazon as they face threat of death
Robbed of their land and driven from their homes, the last of the Amazon’s Povo Jiahui tribe are under no illusions about the threat of death they face.
As guardians of the rainforest for centuries, they have protected the planet, saving vast swathes of land from deforestation and burning.
Together with 304 other indigenous tribes in Brazil, they have helped defend the 2.1 million square miles of trees that produce more than 6% of the Earth’s oxygen.
Now their efforts, not to mention their very existence, are under threat as fires continue to rage in the Amazon. The Mirror travelled to the rainforest to see for itself the devastation left by the blazes – many of which have been started deliberately – that have left the Earth’s lungs choking.
And as I stand in Humaita Forest, in the state of Amazonas, northwestern Brazil, mankind’s mistreatment of nature could not be more stark.
We met the chief of the Povo Jiahui, Pedro Diarroi, who has a message for the world.
His men are preparing to fight to the death to save the rainforest from armed land-grabbers who set fires to clear the land, then sell it on illegally to ranchers and farmers. They are wreaking destruction on legally protected reserves for indigenous tribes.
Pedro said: “The Amazon for indigenous people is like the church, and now it’s being set on fire. Although you may not pray here, it is a place of worship the world cannot afford to lose.
“The common enemy is the non-indigenous people who have invaded our lands and are now burning even those small parts of the forests where we live and that are protected.
“The rainforest is not like some Notre Dame that can be rebuilt. Once it has gone, it will be gone and the world – and you – will suffer. Heed our warning. The time to act is now.
“We must all save the Amazon for it is she who will save the planet.”
Rainforests, of which the Amazon is the biggest, are vital for sustaining life on Earth, and helping to curb climate change. Their trees produce oxygen, but also capture greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
This stops the gases from building up in the atmosphere and warming the Earth to dangerous levels. But, with the Amazon burning, levels of carbon dioxide are at their highest ever.
Pedro and his tribe are breathing in carbon dioxide and other dangerous chemicals and gases from the smoke and ash that has engulfed the region.
Along with Pedro’s sons, 15 other families make up the Povo Jiahui tribe.
And, if the smoke doesn’t kill them, they believe they face genocide at the hands of Brazil’s leaders.
For decades, their remoteness has protected them. But, as fires clear more and more land, they are increasingly exposed.
Armed land-grabbers, known as grileiros – emboldened by Brazil’s new far-right president Jair Bolsonaro – are responsible for many of the blazes, burning thousands of acres of forest to make room for cattle and crops.
Bolsonaro supports landowners over indigenous people, who he has compared to animals trapped in the zoo. He has threatened to revoke the protected status of tribal reserves.
The protection of indigenous land is guaranteed by the Brazilian constitution to preserve 305 tribes, who have been persecuted for centuries. Any lessening of rights for the tribes poses a dire threat to both them and the Amazon.
Along with the fires, the forest is being cut down by cattle ranchers, farmers and mining companies.
Bolsonaro’s stance has emboldened the grileiros, and violence has surged since his 2018 election.
Elton Diarroi, Pedro’s eldest son and heir to the tribe, said: “With Bolsonaro, the grileiros feel untouchable. They act with impunity.
“The river of the Amazon will run red with the blood of the indigenous people, and nothing will be done to stop unless we fight back. Bolsonaro treats us like animals. We are prepared to die for our land.
“This is not a fight just for us, it is a fight everyone on the planet should have an interest in. If we lose this, the world loses too. There will be no coming back. The Amazon is not just Brazil’s, it is for everyone.”
Elton said land-grabbers cut down trees, burn undergrowth and plant grass for cattle grazing. The lands are often sold several times over on the black market, meaning that poor states lose out on vital tax revenue.
Tribes in some areas have reported seeing land-grabbers setting their land ablaze, and then preventing firefighters from accessing the area.
Tainaky Tenetehar, of the Guardians of the Forest – a volunteer indigenous force that patrols reserves – said: “To make it harder, they are stopping the indigenous fire brigade from combating the fires.”
The Co-ordinating Body of Indigenous Organisations in the Brazilian Amazon said: “The fires are destroying the remaining forests in these regions, which are vital spaces for the survival of our relatives.”
Antenor Vaz, a consultant on isolated indigenous peoples, said NASA satellite images showed that fires broke out in 131 indigenous reserves from 15-20 August alone.
Since the beginning of the year, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research has reported some 90,000 fires raging across the country.
This is on top of an 80% increase in deforestation so far this year compared with 2018. As we drive more than 1,000 miles through the rainforest, evidence of fire is everywhere, with trees that once stood more than 100ft tall now lying like cremated corpses on the ground.
The acrid smoke has covered nearly half the country. In Sao Paulo, more than 1,700 miles away, stark images show the skies pitch-black in mid-afternoon, the sun partially obscured by ash clouds. As the blazes continue, a growing number of scientists are concerned about the Amazon disappearing completely.
The climate crisis, along with the fires and other human influences, appear to be on the verge of triggering a significant change in the region’s weather system. Opinions vary, but some scientists say it is imminent.
Research suggests that the entire area could begin to self-destruct, in a process of self-perpetuating deforestation known as dieback.
Not only would the region no longer absorb greenhouse gases, but even more emissions would be created as the felled trees would begin to release the carbon they’ve been storing, or as they rot or burn on the forest floor.
The fires also present a huge danger to the Amazon’s ecosystem, threatening already endangered species. Roberto Troya, Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Wildlife Fund says we should expect a significant loss of wildlife.
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