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Brazil's raging forest fires threaten indigenous land, uncontacted tribes

by Chris Arsenault | @chrisarsenaul | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 21 September 2016 17:12 GMT

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest at the Kuikuro territory in the Xingu National Park, Mato Grosso, Brazil, October 4, 2015. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

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Brazil's uncontacted tribes, some of the last on earth, depend on large areas of unspoiled forest land to hunt animals and gather the food they need to survive

By Chris Arsenault

RIO DE JANEIRO, Sept 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Forest fires raging in northeast Brazil are forcing indigenous people out of their traditional territories and threatening uncontacted tribes, an indigenous leader said on Wednesday.

Fire season in the Amazon and surrounding savannah normally lasts from July to November, but burning has become more intense due to climate change and illegal logging, said Sonia Guajajara, National Coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Peoples.

Uncontacted members of the Awa tribe live in areas affected by fires, and some have been forced out of the jungle, Guajajara told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The Awa people live in isolation but they are coming out of the forests much more frequently," said Guajajara, who hails from the fire-hit region in northeastern Maranhao state.

"Illegal logging and fires are putting pressures on them by destroying the forests," she said.

Uncontacted tribes are particularly vulnerable when their land rights are threatened because they lack the natural immunity to diseases that are carried by outsiders.

Brazil's uncontacted tribes, some of the last on earth, depend on large areas of unspoiled forest land to hunt animals and gather the food they need to survive.

"We are worried about what will happen to the Awa people," said Guajajara, of a group thought to include several hundred uncontacted members.

"The fires are out of control and (are) getting worse," she said, adding that at least one indigenous child had died in a blaze and others had been injured.

Much of the burning land has been formally demarcated to indigenous groups, said Guajajara, and illegal loggers are known to try to force residents off territory by setting it ablaze.

It is not known exactly how many people have been forced off the land by fires in Maranhao this year, Guajajara said.

Last year, she said, fires destroyed more than half of the 413,000 hectare territory known as Arariboia, which her tribe calls home.

Teams of firefighters backed by Brazil's National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) and country's environment agency are battling the blazes, government officials said.

More than 90 percent of the fires have been caused by human actions, said Gabriel Zacharias, the head of Prevfogo, the firefighting division of the environment ministry.

"There are intentional fires in areas of conflict or in forests converted into pasture," Zacharias said in a statement.

The number of forest fires in Latin America's largest country rose by 65 percent last year to hit more than 53,000 outbreaks for the period ending on Aug. 5, Brazil's National Space Research Institute (INPE) reported this month.

Brazil is aiming to reduce its net deforestation rate to zero by 2030, down from more than 5,000 square kms today.

But government officials say the effort has been hampered by illegal deforestation from loggers and ranchers who want to make money from the land.

(Reporting By Chris Arsenault, Editing by Jo Griffin; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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