RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Brazil’s indigenous Manoki have been watching fires tear through their ancestral land for weeks, fearing the devastating damage to their forests may mean the end of their cultural heritage as well.
“The fires did irreversible damage to the places we hunt and collect medicine. Huge trees that took centuries to grow have been cut and burned,” tribe member Giovani Tapura, 38, told VICE News from the Amazon’s smaller Irantxe Indigenous Territory, where the Manoki live.
Holding onto their land is not just essential for their own survival — forests managed by indigenous groups like the Manoki sequester significant amounts of carbon, and indigenous people conserve an estimated 80% of the world’s biodiversity.
They are far from alone with this problem: There are nearly 1 million indigenous Brazilians living in the Amazon, speaking roughly 200 languages, and almost half are endangered. The Amazon fires encroaching on many of their territories are heightening fears that if indigenous groups are driven out of the Amazon and forced into cities, their languages will go extinct.
Indigenous groups say government policies — and lack thereof — have set them up for failure. “There are no government incentives to help revive our language, and the policies for indigenous people the government is suggesting will decimate our culture — the most valuable thing we have,” said Tapura.
Brazil’s current President Jair Bolsonaro has stated that indigenous peoples should be assimilated into Brazilian society by opening up their lands to large-scale agriculture and mining — a move that would be unconstitutional. But experts believe that many of the fires set this year – and the rapid deforestation that preceded them – are strongly linked to land-grabbing and criminal networks. Amid an international outcry over thousands of fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, Bolsonaro, during a meeting of state governors, criticized indigenous territories and suggested he would soon draft measures preventing more indigenous territories from having the formal borders drawn that would give tribes more land rights.
Any threats to their land are a risk to the long-term existence of the Manoki as a cohesive community, said Bernat Bardagil Mas, a postdoctoral fellow specializing in Amazonian indigenous languages at the University of California, Berkeley. He added that their territory is “where the language revitalization efforts could be successful, where maintaining their traditions, their spiritual life, and their identity as Manoki is possible.”
“The fires did irreversible damage to the places we hunt and collect medicine.”
Without access to the Amazon rainforest, the community, surrounded on almost all sides by the steadily encroaching agricultural frontier in the southwestern edge of Mato Grosso state “would shift to a more and more urban type of life, moving progressively to the neighbouring cities of Brasnorte and Campo Novo do Parecís to find jobs and make living possible.” This would almost certainly drive their language to extinction.
Angel Corbera Mori, a linguist at the Institute of Language Studies at the University of Campinas, explained in an interview with Telesur that language itself is critical to the preservation of culture as a whole. “If a language is lost, so is the medicine, culinary, histories, traditional knowledge.”
The Manoki currently live on a much smaller territory than they did historically. The smaller Irantxe Indigenous Territory is adjacent to the larger Manoki Indigenous Territory in Mato Grosso, the state with the largest amount of fire alerts. The tribe has been awaiting official recognition of their land for nine years. It remains stalled because of appeals by squatters who illegally purchased land in indigenous territory. The Manoki and other tribes fear that outsiders are now emboldened by Bolsonaro’s pro-development and anti-indigenous rhetoric to invade their territory.
The environmental impact of the fires has been catastrophic, torching at least 130,000 acres of the rainforest — the equivalent to 72,000 soccer fields. The Amazon in its natural, humid state is essentially fireproof, but deforestation prepped it for the fires that some experts have suggested were in almost entirely all started by humans. Despite a ban issued by Bolsonaro against intentional burning at the end of August, the fires are still burning, and will likely continue through the dry season. Mato Grosso is currently the state with the highest number of fires detected by satellites.