AMAZONAS, Brazil — A fire that's been burning for six days is threatening to engulf the fields of the Amazonas region and the animals that live in them, along with the trees that have been supporting the indigenous people living on the land for generations.
Members of the Tenharim indigenous group told BuzzFeed News that at least 10 separate fires have broken out in their territory, even as fire brigades they've organized have worked to put them out. According to them, the fire — whose origins have yet to be determined — has burned many of the animals that the tribe had previously hunted.
"We cannot say if the fire was started illegally," Chief Gilvan Tenharim told BuzzFeed News. "But we can say this — it's hard for a fire to start from nothing. That fire came from somewhere."
Brazil nuts, which are produced on large trees common in northern Brazil and Bolivia, are a major source of income for the Tenharim.
"It's hard for a fire to start from nothing. That fire came from somewhere."
“My great-grandfather picked nuts here, my grandfather, my father. It is not just the fear of losing the Brazil nut, but this is the territory of my ancestors, where my ancestors lived," said Gilvan Tenharim, 30, the youngest of 12 local cacique, or chieftains.
The chief pointed to his youngest son, 2-year-old Ivan Neto: "I was picking chestnuts here when I was his size."
His family and the rest of the roughly 12,000 people living in the village of Campinho, in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, pick 700 canisters of Brazil nuts, each weighing around 40 pounds, each year. The nuts, which are sold to a distributor, make up the majority of the local income, along with cassava flour and açaí.
Each of the area's "Brazil nut spots," which are divided by family groups within the tribe, has 60 to 300 chestnut trees.
The Tenharim's recent past has been filled with tragedy, beginning with their treatment by the group of white Brazilian rubber tappers that first contacted the indigenous tribe on the banks of the Marmelos River in 1950. They immediately exploited the locals, using the Tenharim as laborers in the cultivation of Brazil nuts and the production of cassava flour and rowanberries.
Rubens Valente, a Brazilian journalist, wrote in his book The Rifles and Arrows — which examined Brazil's treatment of its indigenous groups — that one of the first white Brazilians to contact the Tenharim, Delfim Bento da Silva, soon controlled everything that was of value in the area. Bento de Silva, Valente wrote, had the locals work for him in a dynamic comparable to slavery.
In 1971, when the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway — which now stretches from the country's far east coast into Amazonas, deep in the continent's interior — reached the region, members of the Tenharim were ordered to move from the path of the road. Many years later, testimonies collected by anthropologists and the Federal Prosecutor's Office in Amazonas showed that the construction demolished houses, gardens, and even some Tenharim graves.
The indigenous people themselves were recruited to work on clearing the forest along the road's path. There was no compensation. According to testimonials, Paranapanema — a company that took part in building the highway — delivered only “a box full of dolls for the children” to their laborers.
"We work like slaves," Macedo Tenharim said in a statement to the Prosecutor's Office, according to book. The highway would become a symbol of the Brazilian military dictatorship that ruled 1964 until the mid-1980s and its attempts to "integrate" the Amazon into the rest of the country.
In addition to being paid by the government to build the highway, Paranapanema obtained federal authorization to build mineral extraction projects in the region. A tin mine has worked there for decades. The highway also brought with it diseases that the indigenous people had never encountered before. In 1974, a measles epidemic struck "almost the entire [Tenharim] population," Valente wrote in his book.
In the following decade, the territory saw an influx of sawmills to process the logs felled in the swell of deforestation that peaked in the mid-1990s, according to satellite data collected since the 1980s, saw a sharp decline in the mid-2000s, and has begun to rise again under President Jair Bolsonaro. Hastening the ability for companies to clear the forest for economic development has been one of Bolsonaro's top priorities since taking office earlier this year — a policy that scientists have blamed for the current blazes.
Now the threat of burning in the Tenharim's territory is concentrated in an area near the so-called Tin Highway, opened by Paranapanema to process the tin ore it draws from the mine. Theories and uncertainty abound about how the recent outbreaks began, from a lighted cigarette thrown in a dry field to lightning striking the ground and sparking a blaze.
But the possibility remains that the fires could have been started by the Tenharim themselves while cutting down the forest. Chief Gilvan Tenharim told BuzzFeed News that an area in the territory had been cleared without approval and was apparently being readied for development and sale.
“We have already reported it to FUNAI [the National Indian Foundation, a federal government agency], but we still do not know what happened," he said.
Chief Gilvan said his group is worried about recent remarks from Bolsonaro about his government's ambivalence toward setting aside lands for indigenous populations and conserving protected areas.
INPE, the Brazilian space agency, has recorded over 80,000 outbreaks of fire this year. During a meeting on Tuesday to discuss firefighting policies with governors whose states include portions of the Amazon, Bolsonaro criticized previous governments for carving out territory for indigenous groups.
"It was irresponsible, this policy adopted in the past, using the Indian to make these states economically unviable," Bolsonaro said.
The call was organized in response to criticism and international pressure over the Bolsonaro administration's response to the fires in the Amazon region. With the fires generating headlines around the world and motivating protests against the president, the Brazilian government has made about 44,000 soldiers available to help fight them.
The fire burning inside the Tenharim land today runs for at least half a mile. During a trip covering just under 40 miles in their territory, BuzzFeed News found at least 6 miles that showed signs of fire damage. Near the Tin Road area, fields are burned and the fire has struck part of the forests.
From their base in the Amazonian Campos National Park, which borders the indigenous land, the makeshift fire brigade members wait until mid-afternoon to go out in their cars and all-terrain vehicles. When the heat and wind finally dies down, they placed heavy-duty protective earmuffs on their heads and strapped water tanks to their backs.
As they set out for their day, a few of the firefighters told BuzzFeed News that the fire was still going strong out past the denser forests, where there are more open fields for the flames to quickly devour. ●