The Consequences of Rising Amazon Deforestation for Indigenous People

Written by: Lauren Hutson

According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, between August 2018 and July 2019, the Amazon Rainforest lost 3,769 square miles of rainforest due to deforestation. This marks the highest rate of deforestation since 2008 and is a 30% increase from the previous year. In addition, an intense surge of fires has also raged during this same time period, attracting international attention to the irreversible damage being done. The President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has turned the nation’s focus away from upholding environmental laws since taking office, which is important as approximately 60% of the Amazon Rainforest is in Brazil. The continued rise of deforestation has devastating implications for the Amazon’s ecosystem and global climate, and often importantly, but often overlooked, the Indigenous people who call the Rainforest home. 

President Bolsonaro won Brazil’s general election in 2018 and since then, his government has cut back on enforcing environmental laws and put significantly less focus on fighting illegal mining, logging, and ranching. For example, he has often publicly argued that conservation policies are bad for economic development within Brazil. With a large portion of the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil, there is the opportunity for Bolsonaro to profit off of its resources, offering a potential incentive to increased and accelerated deforestation. Cattle ranching is one of the main forces behind this deforestation, and the increase in cattle ranching has made Brazil the world’s largest exporter for beef, generating $6.7 billion in 2018 for the country’s economy. Moreover, Brazil is also the second largest producer of soybeans in the world, with 80% of the soy grown in the Amazon sold globally to be used for animal feed. Illegal logging and mining is another highly profitable opportunity, as the Amazon contains substantial gold, oil, aluminum composites and timber. The Bolsonaro Administration argues that these industries should have more access to protected and indigenous lands, further fueling these illegal activities.

Much of the international coverage on this deforestation has focused on the environmental effects of the Amazon and the consequences for the global climate. Yet, the effects on Amazon deforestation on the indigenous people who live in the rainforest have also been devastating and extensive. Along with the rise of illegal practices in the Amazon, Bolsonaro campaigned for rolling back on indigenous rights; this has led to the number of land incursions, illegal natural resource extraction, and property damage in indigenous areas doubling in the first nine months under his administration. Fires are often used as a tactic by illegal loggers and miners to drive indigenous people off of their land. To illustrate the frequency of this, research based on NASA images showed that between the 15th and 20th of August 2019, fires broke out in 131 indigenous reserves—15 of which were home to indigenous groups who are isolated or in stages of initial contact. 

Within Brazil, the population of indigenous people is estimated to be 310,000. Moreover, Brazil’s Amazon has more uncontacted tribes than anywhere in the world. These people have inhabited a large portion of the Amazon Rainforest for centuries and rely on the Rainforest’s resources to survive— there are 160 different individual groups within Brazil’s Amazon and these groups practice 195 different languages. Fiona Watson, advocacy director at Survival International, said that those looking for land target indigenous reserves because they are often remote, well-conserved, and unprotected. 

Widespread destruction of the Amazon and specific targeting of these fertile areas forces indigenous people to either face the invaders or flee, threatening their lives and putting many groups in a constant state of fear as they lose their lands and homes. Due to their remoteness, many of these groups have not had contact with modern society and thus are not equipped well for the option of life outside of the Amazon. Additionally, these isolated groups have not built up immunity to diseases that are otherwise common in modern society. It is not uncommon for half of a tribe to be wiped out within a year of contact from diseases like measles and the flu. 

One third of the indigenous groups that were known to be in Brazil in 1900 no longer exist; these numbers represent permanent losses of rich cultures and languages. The increased deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest leads to irreparable damage and poses as a major threat for the indigenous groups who call the rainforest home. Some Brazilian indigenous leaders have spoken out, hoping to raise awareness about the danger that indigenous groups face. Along with this, Brazilian citizens have protested the government’s stance on deforestation by engaging in demonstrations in many major cities. In Rio de Janeiro, protestors can be seen chanting and holding painted crosses commonly seen at funerals to mourn the Rainforest. This activism has garnered more attention towards Bolsonaro’s presidency and the detrimental consequences of deforestation, which will hopefully lead to more global pressure for the Brazilian government to curb deforestation practices. Upholding Brazil’s environmental laws is important to protect both the Rainforest’s ecosystem and the concentrated group of indigenous people who need the Rainforest to survive.