By Julia Henriques Souza
[15 min read]
As one of the largest documented wildfires burned through the woods of the Pantanal wetlands in Brazil, a member of local indigenous tribe grabbed his phone to plea for help. The teacher Kussugi Bruce Kuikuro, from the village of Kaluani, says his cell camera became the last hope, as he received no help from the government institutions even though the flames were destroying his living resources.
He recorded a video just a few feet away from the flames. “The animals are suffering, the birds, and the wind is making the fire stronger,” he said. “please help us. We need material to cover our faces, and boots.”
On September 16th, the Indigenous Peoples Association of Brazil (APIB, in Portuguese) posted Bruce’s video on their Instagram profile, and since then it has been watched almost seventeen thousand times – a significant spike when compared to the page’s five thousand viewer average. At that point in time, the Kuikuro and Kalapalo peoples were physically isolated and dangerously close to the Pantanal fires, which started in early July this year and burned more than two million acres of forest area in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso alone, according to the local Fire Department.
The Kuikuros and Kalapalos are a community from the Xingu Indigenous Territory which had been trying to stop the fires with the help of non-indigenous volunteers, using their own traditional knowledge of the forest – geography, animal behavior, etc. But Kussugi said in the video that it was not enough anymore. “Without water pumps and boots, we can’t stop it…” he said, “snakes are running from the fire and we need boots, so we don’t get bitten.”
In April 2020, three months before the inferno started, with the support and curation of the São Paulo-based photographer Vitor Machado, Bruce started capturing pictures and videos for Projeto Inhu (Inhu Project, in English). As Vitor put it, “the initiative’s goal is to educate non-indigenous persons about the traditional way of life, as well as promote cultural and environmental protection in their territory”.
After Kaluani started having access to internet via satellite, little more than two months ago, it became much easier for Bruce and his peers to share information on Projeto Inhu’s profile, as well as communicate with Vitor. Before this resource, Bruce had to travel through a dirt road to a neighboring village to use the internet. The facilitated connection allowed for the Kuikuro and Kalapalo peoples to use social media as a tool to tell their own story, share their culture, language, and the struggles they face.
When the environmental disaster struck, Bruce used his social media presence to show a reality that was not being shown on the traditional news. Pantanal (“big swamp”, in Portuguese) is a unique ecosystem located in a remote region of Midwestern Brazil. Though less globally visible than the infernos that consumed the Amazon rainforest earlier this year, the fires in Pantanal, which had not seen such indiscriminate and uncontrolled burning until this past July, were no less tragic from a biodiversity perspective, as it is the world’s largest tropical wetland.
Tiago Amaral, a Brazilian indigenous rights activist and scholar, went on a scoping mission to Poconé, a small town in Mato Grosso’s Pantanal, on the same week Bruce made his viral video and witnessed the neglect and access challenges firsthand. “Some regions were only accessible using the fire department’s helicopters, but those were entirely dedicated to rescue missions”, he said in an interview. “Many of the main bridges in the Poconé area were made of wood and completely destroyed by the fire, which led to the isolation of numerous small indigenous and quilombola communities.”
Since the Bolsonaro administration made dramatic cuts to the Ministry of Environment’s budget, it became increasingly hard for federal governmental institutions such as IBAMA and ICMBio to prevent, monitor and fight illegal fires and deforestation. And that, according to Amaral, is the main problem. “The fire department, the state government, [the] city counselors… they were all mourning the massive destruction of such precious ecosystem, but they simply did not have enough resources to immediately fix it,” Amaral said. He called it an “apocalyptic scenario.”
“We are trained to respond to the fires that happen every year in the during the dry season,” says 1st Lieutenant Lucas Brito, the head of the environmental emergencies battalion of Mato Grosso’s fire department, “but the last time a disaster of this large proportions happened was more than 100 years ago.” A multiagency effort to help the local fire department contain the fires didn’t begin until August, a month after the flames began spreading.
Even though the military forces and federal institutions were adding strength to this endeavor, it was still immensely challenging to attend the multiple simultaneous foci of fire. For that reason, Lieutenant Brito and his colleagues had to establish priorities. “Areas with higher temperatures, which are indicators of large amounts of fire, were attended first,” he said in an interview. “Within those regions, we focused on saving bridges, roads, and state and national parks.”
Lieutenant Brito and his crews assisted some of Mato Grosso’s indigenous communities. But indigenous land officially falls under the responsibility of IBAMA, a department in the Ministry of Environment. The IBAMA fire brigade did not arrive in Kaluani until September 20, when the flames were just over a mile away. It was four days after Bruce’s video went viral.
Fortunately, the initial post on APIB’s profile made a big difference in the Kuikuros’ and Kalapalos’ independent efforts. At that time of crisis, Projeto Inhu’s profile became a platform for updates to those outside the Xingu Indigenous Territory and, most importantly, for fundraising. The attention the video attracted was crucial for gathering funds needed to buy the protective equipment Bruce asks for in the video. Machado said they received so many donations that they were also able to invest in fire prevention resources, such as training and equipment for the indigenous community members.
Five days after Bruce’s post, on September 21, rainfall extinguished the fire bearing down on his village. Lieutenant Brito’s troops fought the remaining fires throughout Mato Grosso until November 12, when the last heat zone was contained. It still remains unclear what started the fires. Several calls made to the Mato Grasso fire department’s emergency service line reported non-criminal incidents, such as a car crash which led to a combustion, in a short period of time around the fires’ start. But all those interviewed for this article said it is impossible to establish linear responsibility, given the fire’s extent and ample spread.
Climate change has created an environment that is more conducive to such monumental blazes in that specific region of Brazil, experts say. “This year’s winter has also been abnormally dry, which helps the flames spread,” Lieutenant Brito said.
The President’s office has tried to pin the blame elsewhere, though. In his September 22 opening speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Bolsonaro accused indigenous peoples and rural workers in Pantanal, without evidence, of causing the fires. His administration has also refused to address the fires across Brazil’s interior in the context of its lax environmental oversight.
Bolsonaro’s claims fit a distinct pattern: when confronted with criticism of his government’s environmental policies, the Brazilian president has often foisted blame on indigenous peoples. In November, following the announcement of a U.K. initiative to ban the importation of commodities linked to deforestation, he sought to imply that indigenous communities actually supported deforestation on their lands, albeit in exchange for cheap material goods. They had traded “logs of wood for Coca-Cola or beer,” he said in a social media live stream.
When asked to describe how the fires affected his community specifically, Bruce said: “The fire burned the wood we used to build our houses [and the] fruit trees that feed us during the winter. [Finally], it left us without the natural resources that we traditionally use in a sustainable and conscious manner. Our community mobilized and we [gathered] indigenous and non-indigenous volunteers to fight the fire, but we did it without the necessary resources.” He also talked about the spiritual unity indigenous peoples share with nature, which makes the fire not only a material loss for them, but also a religious one.
Júlia Henriques Souza is a Master of International Affairs candidate at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, concentrating in Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy and double-specializing in Gender and Public Policy, and Technology, Media and Communications. Before coming to SIPA, Julia did her undergraduate studies at the University of Brasília, where she got a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations.
Julia has developed and published research in gender, human rights and migrations, and is currently using her skills to work with technology and social media, more specifically its use for research, reporting and advocacy against human rights violations. She is especially interested in the use of eyewitness medias for storytellling.