Fire, Property, and Anti-Indigenous Policies in Brazil

From the Series: Firestorm: Critical Approaches to Forest Death and Life

Fires burning across the North American West send smoke pouring into the Pacific, September 10, 2020. Image by the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere.

It is fire’s capacity for creative destruction that lets a cynic have it both ways.

On September 22, 2020, in a prerecorded address to the United Nations General Assembly, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro answered critics who blamed him for record-breaking deforestation and rampant fires that had burned through the Amazon and Pantanal regions in 2019 and 2020. Batting away any notion that the fires had spread into conserved lands or Indigenous territories, Bolsonaro said that “[the fires] occur in the same places [each year], in the east, where peasants and Indians burn their fields in already deforested areas.” Nevermind that satellite data, on-the-ground reporting, and statistics from his own government documented the alarming increase of fires in 2019/2020, as well as the undeniable link between these fires and the expanding frontiers of land-grabbing within protected areas. President Bolsonaro, unfazed by facts and uninterested in international public opinion, was playing to his base in the mushrooming towns along the agro-industrial fringes of Amazonia, constituents eager to minimize the fires, pass them off as “natural,” or blame Indigenous and other traditional communities for the rest.

For colonists in Altamira or Novo Progresso, both located in the state of Pará, fire has been the technology of choice for clearing forest since at least the late 1970s. Early settlers still recount how, with each passing dry season (July–November), they would set fires to expand their land holdings, often with an aim of clearing several thousand hectares before selling the parcel on to prospective buyers in southern Brazil. These new owners, in turn, would set up ranches, sawmills, or simply sit on their parcels as investments hedging against Brazil’s runaway inflation in the 1980s and 1990s. In this way, lands cleared by fires also became thinkable as private, severable lots—the prerequisite for orderly colonization of any frontier. One colonist to the region explained to me that “fire is like our plow, turning over the land and raising profits.” Fire’s physical capacity to alter a landscape is driven, in this telling, by an ideological commitment to remaking Amazonia in the model of an export-driven agricultural breadbasket.

Consistent with fire’s role in creating and sustaining colonial projects, though, is the role it has played in erasing or reducing the territorial claims of Amazonia’s Indigenous peoples. As logging and ranching exploded in the late 1990s, colonists conspired to invade the Baú Indigenous Territory, home to the Mebêngôkre Kayapó peoples and located just to the east of Novo Progresso. Dry season fires, along with the consistent push of “peons” opening roads and setting up sentry posts (often working in conditions analogous to slavery) resulted in the deforestation and occupation of nearly one-fifth of the Baú Indigenous territory. Lest the farms and private parcels be deemed worthless, well-connected colonists then successfully pressed federal legislators in 2008 to reduce the acreage of Baú, effectively granting title to stolen lands and virtually assuring that well-financed invasions would continue to plague the region. At the time of this writing, colonists are occupying stolen lands in a slew of demarcated Indigenous territories, including Cachoeira Seca, Apyterewa, Ituna Itatá, and Trincheira-Bacajá in Pará; Araribóia and Alto Turiaçu in Maranhão; and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau in Rondônia, to name only the most egregious examples. Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation inhabit several of these territories, and remain at greatest risk from fires, COVID-19, and targeted colonial violence. The colonists’ playbook remains the same: push into protected territories using violence, arson, and big machinery, leaving marks that can later be defended as “productive” or generative of “progress.”

The recent history of the occupation of the Brazilian Amazon has shown that the law is on their side. With Bolsonaro, land grabbers finally have the leader they were pining for when I first began studying territorial dynamics in the region twenty years ago. Legal, procedural, and human rights protections formerly enjoyed by Indigenous peoples have been slashed, as political appointees have immobilized or politicized FUNAI (the National Indian Foundation). As environmental crimes escalate, the number of fines and prosecutions meted out by the environmental protection service (IBAMA) has cratered. Bolsonaro’s former environmental minister, Ricardo Salles, speaks openly of using “the distraction of COVID-19” to plunge further into the Amazon, while the world isn’t looking, and has set up “conciliation” panels to negotiate with land-grabbers and regularize (i.e., privatize) their ill-gotten parcels of public lands. All the incentives, all the signals, will ensure that the destruction continues. The situation is most dire in the 237 Indigenous territories throughout Brazil that are stuck at various stages in the formal demarcation process. With FUNAI paralyzed and the agro-industrial ruralista bloc ascendant in government, these areas have been targeted by land mafias and craven politicians who seem hellbent on making sure, in Bolsonaro’s words, “not one more centimeter of land is demarcated for Indigenous peoples.” Meanwhile, Brazil continues to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for environmental defenders and Indigenous leaders. In the words of Alessandra Korap Munduruku, a leader in the effort to demarcate her people’s ancestral lands before it’s too late: “In this struggle it’s our bodies that are on the line, our animals that our dying, our children that are calling out for help.”

Blaming Indigenous people and landless workers for setting fires is an old trick: I heard it countless times as ranchers explained to me how what they were doing was similar to “slash and burn,” with no accounting for scale or environmental impact. The comparison is an absurd one, of course, but it bears making explicit what the ethnographic record shows. In the hands of traditional peoples in Amazona, swidden agriculture using fire and fallow is small-scale, intensively managed, productive of rich soils, conducive to biodiversity, systemically sustainable, and constitutive of a worldview in which human efforts at domestication are not generalized over a landscape but rather co-exist with the home-making efforts of other beings. By contrast, fires set by ranchers and land-grabbers render a narrow—if calamitous and dramatic—purpose for fire, casting it as a prime mover in the monotonization of landscape and the supremacy of human holders of capital. For Bolsonaro and his adoring fans, the feint toward blaming Amazonia’s fires on Indians and peasants is really a tell: it’s Indigenous land they are coming for, and they know just who to blame.