The Amazon Fires Are Destroying Indigenous People's Homes — We Interviewed an Amazon Watch Director to Learn More

Andrew Miller of Amazon Watch explains why the indigenous people of the Amazon are under attack.

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Aug. 18 2020, Updated 2:27 p.m. ET

amazon rainforest indigenous
Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Guajajara indigenous tribe members pose in their village on protected Amazonian indigenous land on June 10, 2012 in the Arariboia Indigenous Reserve, Maranhao state, Brazil.

This week, people all over the world became aware of the fires devastating the Amazon, primarily as a result of developers illegally clearing land by setting fire to the rainforest. Because the Amazon provides 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen — earning it the nickname of the lungs of the Earth — many are focusing on the detrimental effects a wounded Amazon rainforest could have on the climate at large. But what people are still unaware of are the ways these fires are already affecting the indigenous people who live in the Amazon.

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Climate change is a social justice issue — and like with many other social justice issues, the people who are affected the most are minority groups. So while people in developed countries may not yet personally feel a significant impact from the climate crisis, some people who live in the Amazon have already had their reserves burned down by developers to make way for agribusiness such as cattle ranches and palm oil plantations. 

To learn more about the hundreds of indigenous tribes that call the Amazon rainforest home, Green Matters caught up with Andrew Miller over the phone on Friday morning, Aug. 23. Miller is the Advocacy Director for Amazon Watch, an organization that fights to protect the rainforest and the indigenous community in the Amazon Basin. 

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"There are over 400 indigenous groups across the Amazon at large, several hundred of which are in the Brazilian Amazon, which is roughly two-thirds of the total surface area of the Amazon," Miller explains to Green Matters. "There are hundreds of groups, all of which have their own languages, their own customs, their own ways of life. But there are also a lot of similarities between them — their relationship with the land, and in many ways, their commitment to protecting their own territory."

"Some of them are living in voluntary isolation, or, sometimes people call them 'uncontacted' indigenous people," Miller continues. "Brazil has the largest number of so-called uncontacted indigenous people. And these are the folks that are at-risk with forest fires and also other manifestations of the assault on the Amazon right now, including land invasion, illegal logging, and illegal mining."

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When asked how the fires affect the indigenous communities living in the Amazon, Miller notes the above viral video, which is worth more than a thousand words. He tells Green Matters:

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"The fires are very visual, you don’t even need text to look at a photo of the rainforest burning to convey a very clear and frightening message. The fires themselves are only the biggest manifestation of a number of other tendencies that are all interrelated. One of the other tendencies being the deforestation that’s going on, and obviously deforestation can spark more fires.
Deforestation is — you know, people think about trees being cut down, and the effect on the wildlife, and the animals that are there. But deforestation is highly correlated to violence to people who live in forests — indigenous people and other non-indigenous forest-dwellers. And those people rely on the forest for their livelihood, and people spend their lives there."

Miller also notes that helping the tribes during this time isn't as straightforward as it may seem. "With the groups as remote as they are, communication is a huge challenge," he says. "So, we [Amazon Watch] are working in partnership with indigenous federations at the national level."

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So, how are developers getting away with unjustly setting fires in the Amazon to clear land? According to Miller, the destruction throughout the rainforest is all "manifestations of [Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro's policies and rhetoric." Miller says:

"[The Bolsonaro administration] is not enforcing [environmental laws]. They’re slashing budgets, they’re working to change the laws right now in the Brazilian Congress. It’s a big fight, right now, literally this week, the same time the fires are going on, the Brazilian government is proposing to weaken environmental rules. On the policy level, Bolsonaro has appointed the worst people as ministers. In a very Trumpian style, [Bolsonaro] has hired people who come directly from the same industries that they’re supposed to regulate."
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Brazil actually does have laws protecting the people of the Amazon — they're just not enforced. "The legal and constitutional protections are great, and it’s funny because the government discourse is exactly that right now. It’s very cynical," he says, noting that one of the president's advisors (likely referring to Filipe G. Martins) posted a Twitter thread this week bragging about Brazil's stringent environmental protections — when not only is Bolsonaro not responsible for those laws, but he's actually ignoring them.

"It’s kind of the same way Trump talks about how the U.S. has clean air and water. But the reason that is true is because of the laws and regulations enforced by the EPA, and at the same time, all of the policies he’s rolling out are working to undo all of that," says Miller. "It’s the same thing in Brazil. They’re touting Brazil’s constitutional protections and laws, which, if enforced, do serve as a protection. It’s not perfect, obviously, but it’s something. But this administration is doing everything it can to not obey the existing laws in the short term, and to weaken them in the long term."

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Because the current administration is not enforcing these laws, many indigenous tribes have been forced to respond to land invaders by protect their territories on their own. Miller explains:

"Extraordinarily, there are some indigenous people who no longer — if they ever did — rely on the government to protect their territory. It’s too important. 
Instead, they organize guards to go out and patrol their territory, to confront invaders and illegal loggers and miners to try to send them packing, which is a pretty extraordinary thing for [the indigenous people] to do, given how violent the [developers] can be. So that’s how communities on the ground are protecting the Amazon and the environment, but also, in a broader sense, the frontline protectors of the climate."
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So for those who want to get involved with protecting the Amazon — not only for the sake of the world, but for the sake of immediately protecting the indigenous tribes of the rainforest — Miller has a few suggestions (other than donating to Amazon Watch, of course). Go to the Global Climate Strike this September; follow the Extinction Rebellion and attend their protests at Brazilian Embassies; and stop eating beef and dairy, since cattle ranching is responsible for 80 percent of the Amazon's deforestation, according to the WWF. "Fundamentally, people need to stop eating meat. We need to stop being the market for these products, and stop creating the economic impetus that’s behind these things," Miller says. 

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Additionally, Miller recommends reading up on the blossoming relationship between the U.S. and Brazil's governments — more accurately, between the two nations' leaders. As Miller explained in a recent op-ed for The Hill, Bolsonaro is working on convincing Donald Trump to invest U.S. money in his vision of developing the Amazon. Write to your Representatives, and make it clear that you do not support those investments.

Since we cannot communicate with most indigenous people directly, all of Miller's suggestions are great ways to show your support, and thank these tribes for defending the rainforest. "Indigenous people are absolutely central climate actors — obviously, indigenous rights in and of themselves are important and intrinsic — but in addition to their rights, they are crucial climate actors,” Miller tells Green Matters. “They are putting their bodies on the line with these issues. They need our support and solidarity.”

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