Amazon fires‘ explosion is not natural, and this year’s record-breaking conflagration is not new. Indigenous peoples have managed fire in an ecologically sustainable fashion for millennia. But since Brazil began to encourage agricultural colonization in the region during the 1970s, the Amazon’s dry season has been eagerly awaited as the “burning season:” time for ranchers and soy-planters to clear large extensions of forest, let them dry, and strike the match. In this way, over 20% of the original forest’s extent has been converted to pasture and field over the last few decades. The vast majority of this agricultural expansion has proceeded through illegal land-grabs, in which elites deforest land, evict peasant and indigenous groups at gunpoint, and manipulate the judicial system to launder their ill-gotten lands into deeded properties. Some of Brazil’s largest companies are involved in this cycle, in which traditional communities and their forests and rivers fall prey to an unsustainably expanding agricultural system.
As an international society of anthropologists who work with indigenous and traditional peoples in Amazonia, we join our voices to those in Brazil and throughout the world who are outraged by the swathe of fires burning across northern Brazil. The smoke of these fires has famously blackened the daytime sky of Brazil’s largest city, shaking the world to notice the existential threats facing the peoples and ecosystems of the world’s largest remaining tropical rainforest. And while reports have correctly laid the blame on the Brazilian government for its feckless response to the conflagrations, we contend that the President’s public statements and policy proposals—which so clearly signal a racist contempt for indigenous rights—are the true fuel that’s driving these fires.