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Indigenous peoples declare Amazon fires a humanitarian emergency

On 22 August, as a record number of fires are raging in the Amazon, a number of groups representing indigenous peoples declared an environmental and humanitarian emergency in an open letter. They are calling on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to the United Nations to take action as the violent fires threaten their people with what the letter calls “extinction”.

Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International, said in a statement: “We must stand together behind the Indigenous communities and leaders across the Amazon region – from Brazil to Ecuador and beyond. For them the Amazon is more than the lungs of the world, it is their home.”

Meanwhile, Brazil has refused to accept the £18m pledged at the G7 summit in Biarritz to help fight the raging Amazon wildfires. On 26 August, Emmanuel Macron announced that the funding would be immediately released and could be spent on more fire-fighting plane sorties to curb record blazes in the rainforest that have alarmed environmentalists yet the funding will not be accepted according to Brazilian officials.

Record number of fires and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest

Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has seen a record number of fires this year, new data suggests. The National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) said its satellite data showed an 84% increase on the same period in 2018.

Wildfires often occur in the dry season in Brazil but they are also deliberately started in efforts to illegally deforest land for cattle ranching. Inpe said it had detected more than 74,000 fires between January and August – the highest number since records began in 2013. It said it had observed more than 9,500 forest fires since 15 August, mostly in the Amazon region.

Last month, Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president of Brazil, forced Inpe’s director to resign as he accused him of lying about the scale of deforestation in the Amazon and of trying to undermine the government. It came after Inpe published data showing an 88% increase in deforestation there in June compared to the same month a year ago.

Ricardo Mello, head of the WWF Amazon Programme, said the fires were “a consequence of the increase in deforestation seen in recent figures”.

What do the forest fires in the Amazon mean for indigenous peoples?

Raffaella Fryer-Moreira, an anthropologist at University College London, told the magazine Earther that there is no distinction between environmental rights and human rights for many of these communities.

“The forest fires we are witnessing today will be understood by many communities not only as an ecocide but as a genocide,” Fryer-Moreira said.

The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and it is a vital carbon store that slows down the pace of global warming. It is also home to about three million species of plants and animals, and one million indigenous people. They depend on the forest which is exactly why the forest fires are so detrimental to the health and well-being of indigenous peoples. It is where they hunt and where they fish. It is their home.

In May 2019, Amnesty International published a report documenting illegal land invasions and arson attacks in indigenous territories. Land seizures and logging have become much more frequent and indigenous leaders told the organisation that they had received death threats for defending their traditional lands.

“Deforestation in the territories Amnesty visited has doubled this year compared to the same time period in 2018 because of illegal invaders who are felling trees, starting forest fires and attacking indigenous communities living there,” Amnesty said in a statement.

International criticism of the Brazilian government

President Bolsonaro, who has tried to smear NGOs with the slander that they started the fires, has faced deepening international criticism for his handling of the fires. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson have called the fires an international crisis.

Ms Merkel called it an “acute emergency” and Mr Macron tweeted: “Our house is burning.” Other countries had threatened to target Brazil’s economy if the nation did not act to stop the fires. France and Ireland have said they will not ratify a large trade deal with South American nations and Finland’s finance minister has called on the EU to consider banning Brazilian beef imports.

Conservationists have blamed Mr Bolsonaro for the Amazon’s plight, saying he has encouraged loggers and farmers to clear the land, and scientists say the rainforest has suffered losses at an accelerated rate since he took office in January. During his campaign, he pledged to limit fines for damaging the rainforest and to weaken the influence of the environmental agency.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on 22 August: “In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity. The Amazon must be protected.”

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