Indigenous peoples guard ‘the lungs of the planet’ for all of us

We have a duty to support their fight to protect the Amazon from Bolsanaro’s destructive ‘pro-development’ policies.

Piaracu gathering Jan 2020
Indigenous women leaders are seen at a gathering aiming to raise awareness about the threats facing the Amazon rainforest, in Piaracu, Brazil, Jan 2020. [Federico Cruz/Culture Hack Labs]

On January 14-18, representatives from 45 Indigenous communities gathered in the small village of Piaracu, in the Xingu Basin of the Amazon, to mobilise against the anti-environmentalist rhetoric and devastating “pro-development” policies of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonoro, which have led to an unprecedented surge in the number and severity of fires in the Amazon rainforest.

The meeting, which was convened by legendary Indigenous Brazilian leader and environmentalist Chief Raoni, came at a watershed moment in the fight to save a region that is considered to be “the heart and lungs of the planet”. Today, scientists are warning that the Amazon is fast approaching its “tipping point” – the point when global climate change, combined with increasing deforestation, would cause the Amazon rainforest to turn into a dessert-like savannah. According to Carlos Nobre, a renowned climate researcher at the University of Sao Paulo, this could happen within 10 to 15 years at the current rate of destruction, resulting in a global catastrophe that would affect the entire planet.

The Amazon is vital for the survival of the global biosphere. It produces oxygen and sequesters huge amounts of carbon (2.2 billion tons annually). Moreover, according to the “biotic pump theory, which argues that the world’s forests create and control ocean-to-land winds and bring moisture to all terrestrial life, the Amazon is responsible for cycling about 20 percent of the world’s freshwater. A 2013 Princeton University study concluded that a reduced Amazon could cause up to a 50 percent reduction in rainfall in California’s Sierra Nevada. Without the Amazon, the world as we know it will cease to exist.

Following their January meeting, Indigenous leaders published the Piaracu Manifesto to inform Brazilians, and the international community, of the urgency of the threat facing them, the Amazon and the world. 

In their manifesto, they stated that the actions of the Bolsonaro government amount to “genocide, ethnocide and ecocide” and went on to say: “The Brazilian State has to understand that it has a historic debt to Indigenous peoples. We are the first inhabitants of our country. We not only defend the environment: we are Nature itself. If they kill the environment, they are killing us. We want the forest forever standing, not because the forest is beautiful, but because all these beings that inhabit the forest are part of us and run in our blood.”

Indeed, since coming into office in January 2019, Bolsonaro has been waging an ideological and physical war against the Amazon and its Indigenous inhabitants: He repeatedly declared his desire to oust Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands in the Amazon region to pave the way for “economic growth”; he made concessions to agribusinesses, miners and loggers, allowing them to extract resources in the previously protected sections of the region; he made racist comments about Indigenous peoples and even attempted to legalise crimes against them; and most recently, he sent the military into the region under the pretence of fighting fires and deforestation.

Unfortunately, even after the publication of the Piaracu Manifesto in January, the Bolsanaro government’s attacks on the Amazon and its Indigenous communities continued unabated. New data suggests deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased by 171 percent in April alone. Scientists believe this deadly trend will continue in the years to come if no action is taken.

The Indigenous peoples of the Amazon also came face to face with a new existential threat in the past few months: the COVID-19 pandemic. The people living in the region are now experiencing increased precarity due to the spread of the virus in their communities. Christian Evangelicals, using the influence they have over the Bolsonaro government, have increased the number of missionary trips they make to remote places in the Amazon in recent years. These visits, which aim to convert uncontacted Indigenous tribes to Christianity, risk exposing these communities not only to common diseases that they have no immunity against but also to COVID-19. 

Moreover, scientists believe the next deadly pandemic may originate in the Brazilian Amazon. Epidemiologists have long been aware that “new diseases typically arise at the nexus between forest and agribusiness, mining and other human development”. If Bolsonaro’s plans to destroy the Amazon in the name of development are not immediately countered, increased deforestation and fires can alter natural habitats, change animal behaviour and bring foraging wildlife into contact with neighbouring human communities, creating vectors for zoonotic bacteria, viruses and parasites. 

In response to these growing threats, hundreds of civil society organisations have come together in April to sign a declaration demanding an immediate moratorium on extraction in the Amazon. 

Environmental activists, Indigenous rights defenders and conservationists are also concerned about what post-COVID-19 economic recovery may mean for the Amazon. 

“This pandemic is taking a toll on vulnerable populations in the Amazon while illegal looting of the rainforest for timber, gold, oil and other commodities is increasing deforestation,” Atossa Soltani, the founder of Amazon Watch and co-creator of the recently launched Amazon Emergency Fund, told us. “We are concerned that in the name of post-COVID-19 recovery, Amazon countries are planning to double down on their neoliberal economic policies and extractive industries. By 2100 we may see up to a billion of our fellow humans die from climate chaos and ecosystem collapse. COVID-19 is offering us an opportunity to shift away from life-blind capitalism which seeks infinite economic growth at the expense of the planet’s life support systems. Our choice is clear: we must change the way we live and relate to our living planet. Otherwise, the future of our species is not guaranteed.”

As Sonia Guajajara, a coordinator from the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), recently said, Indigenous peoples are “the cure of the Earth”. “Where there is an indigenous presence there is clean water, protected forest, healthy food.”

It is time we humble ourselves to other ways of knowing and being with and within the world. As Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa says in his recent book The Falling Sky, “There is only one sky and we must take care of it, for if it becomes sick, everything will come to an end.”

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.