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  1. Environment
19 October 2022

Letter from Brazil: the rainforest fights back

Jair Bolsonaro’s rule has been disastrous for the Amazon. But the remote communities who live there are gaining ground.

By Andrew Downie

In 2006 I travelled four hours by plane from Rio de Janeiro and then six hours by jeep, along highways that began with broken asphalt and ended in rutted trails. From there I walked into the Amazon rainforest, stepping over branches and muddy pools; beams of sunlight cut through from the canopy overhead. Ahead of me walked Sydney Possuelo, the ethnographer and greatest living expert on Brazil’s most isolated communities. Ahead of us both were the Akuntsu people.

Only six Akuntsu remained, and Possuelo, then in his late sixties, had erected a fence around their land to protect them in what he knew were their dying decades. Many had been killed, but these six had survived the repeated incursions of loggers, ranchers and miners. I had come at Possuelo’s invitation to write about indigenous peoples; a nurse accompanied us to carry out health checks.

[See also: “I haven’t met a politician ready to do what it takes”: Greta Thunberg and Björk in conversation]

We had been walking for around an hour when Possuelo paused and shouted “Wooo hoooo! Wooo hoooo!” – a warning that we were approaching. Moments later, a clearing opened up and there they were, adorned with beads and feathers and the reddish extract of the urucu tree.

Communication was difficult: linguists had yet to understand the Akuntsu language or to connect it to any other. Their huts were prehistoric in construction, but pots, and necklaces made from plastic bottle tops pointed to earlier contact with settler society. Three baby toucans had been tied to a stake. Our guide negotiated over whether or not a rifle should be taken on an animal hunt the next day; the time was indicated by pointing at the sun’s position in the sky.

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For most of Brazil’s history, stories such as those of the Akuntsu have been told by outsiders. Today, the country’s indigenous people – journalists, filmmakers, artists and even politicians – are beginning to take charge of their own narratives. Two indigenous deputies, Sônia Guajajara and Célia Xakriabá, were elected in congressional elections on 2 October; together they will lead a legislative push-back against the powerful lobby of Jair Bolsonaro.

While the president is unlikely to win the run-off against Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on 30 October, his supporters will remain a significant political force. One example: Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s former environment minister, may be under investigation for collusion with illegal loggers – but in the election, he won three times the votes of Marina Silva, the environment minister who under Lula helped reduce deforestation by 40 per cent.

[See also: The fate of the Amazon rainforest rests on Brazil’s presidential election]

Outside politics, Amazonian news agencies are employing more indigenous journalists. Sumaúma, a website set up with help from European and Brazilian philanthropists, is training – and learning from – reporters across the region. The roles of teacher and pupil are being reversed. While making the recent documentary The Territory, about the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe and their fight against deforestation, the American producers planned to embed a crew in the village. The tribal leader told them not to bother. “We have all the equipment here,” he said. “We’ll record it ourselves, and you can pay us directly. Just send us your shot list and we’ll do the rest.” The result, a collaboration between indigenous and international film-makers, won two awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Perhaps even more important are the self-described “ethno-communicators”, the indigenous people writing blogs and sharing photographs, audio and video. The internet was late to reach many remote village communities, known as aldeias, and connections remain patchy – but they are improving. The human rights organisation Survival International, which supports tribal people around the world, once got its updates mostly by visiting aldeias in person. Now it can receive regular news about issues big and small, as well as video posts, direct from Amazonian communities themselves.

[See also: On the eradication of species]

The power of these new communicators was evident in June, when the British journalist Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, an activist and advocate for indigenous causes, were murdered in the far west of the Amazon. I knew Dom well, as a colleague and a friend, and we had chatted on WhatsApp just hours before he set off to the Javari Valley on a research trip for his next book, How to Save the Amazon.

The two men went missing on the Itaquai River early one Sunday morning. Within hours, local organisations had contacted the press and the authorities. One, the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (Univaja), set up a WhatsApp group for journalists; its lawyers and activists hosted Instagram Live conversations, answered reporters’ questions, and shared evidence of the fishing mafias they had long claimed were active in the area. Phillips’ and Pereira’s bodies were found deep in the forest ten days later. Six men have been detained in custody following the discovery. It is thought the pair were shot dead in response to Pereira’s attempts to intervene in the illegal fishing of turtles and pirarucu, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish. 

For Univaja, Pereira’s death was deeply personal. The 41-year-old was a key figure in its Forest Guardians programme, which – by means of drones and GPS – helps indigenous peoples map their lands. Such surveys better equip them to patrol, sometimes with just bows and arrows, for invaders. It was work that was both skilled and dangerous – and which should have been done by the government.

Since taking power, Bolsonaro has hollowed out environmental bodies and the state indigenous organisation, the Fundação Nacional do Índio (Funai). The number of encroachments on indigenous land has almost tripled since 2018, and violence has soared. His defeat would be a welcome relief for a region that has suffered four years of applied destruction.

But even if Bolsonaro is voted out, the Amazon faces mortal danger. Already a quarter has been cut down and some parts are close to a tipping point – beyond which they cannot recover. Lula has promised to combat illegal logging and mining – but he will struggle with a congress dominated by the right. In the elections on 2 October, Brazilians handed mandates to candidates who have supported mining on indigenous land, campaigned for (and secured) a relaxation of pesticide restrictions and sought to relax laws criminalising land grabs.

There are now only three Akuntsu people left. Other isolated or recently contacted tribes live under the threat of extermination. But while Bolsonaro’s reign has been disastrous for the rainforest, there is a new-found belief that what happens in the Amazon no longer stays in the Amazon. “People are looking closer at our culture and our struggles,” Ariene Susui, an indigenous reporter from Manaus recently told me. “We are protagonists in our own stories.”

Andrew Downie is the author of “Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend” (Simon & Schuster)

[See also: Can we save the Amazon rainforest from environmental destruction?]

This article appears in a special issue of the New Statesman guest edited by Greta Thunberg and featuring contributors including Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Rebecca Solnit, Ai Weiwei and Björk. Read more from the issue here.

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This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency