“We are strong, as the roots of the Cerrado, and full of strenght, as the trees and the waters from Pantanal”. This is the call of Estevão Bororo Taukane, of the Bororo ethnic group, for his people to renew their hope and rebuild what the fire destroyed in September 2020. The Córrego Grande village, where he lives, is the largest of the four villages in the Indigenous Territory Tereza Cristina – whick is located a little over 300 kilometers from Cuiabá and 120 kilometers from Rondonópolis. It was the village which suffered most from the fires that hit Mato Grosso state last year. There, in the transition area between the Pantanal and Cerrado biomes, 112 families live – or around 400 people.
“The fire burned the forest, the medicinal herbs, killed the animals, destroyed (burned) raw materials that served as roofs for the houses…such as bacuri straw. And it brought many health problems with the smoke,” says Estevão, who, at the time, called for help from WWF-Brazil, on behalf of the Bororo Tugo Baigare Indigenous Association. From there, a partnership was formed, and the organization donated food, more than 80 tools for the retaking of the swiddens and canvas to serve as a temporary roof for the houses of the Bóe Bororo.
The items that arrived at the Bororo are part of the BRL 208,000 humanitarian aid that WWF-Brazil sent to the Centro de Vida Institute (ICV), between December 2020 and March 2021, to help communities affected by the fire. In order for the initiative to achieve its goal and include the most vulnerable populations, the ICV teamed up with ‘SOS Daughters of Pantanal and Cerrado’, a project that was born spontaneously through the union associations of Quilombola (the remaining residents of the “quilombos”, settlements first established by escaped slaves in Brazil), Indigenous and traditional Pantanal women communities. These partnerships have been articulated by the Casa das Pretas Cultural Center, of the Institute of Black Women of Mato Grosso (Imune). In total, 4,000 people benefited from the delivery of 900 food baskets and more than 2,000 hygiene kits.
“ICV is our long-term partner. They have more than 30 years of experience in Mato Grosso and a history of promoting the empowerment of the local population”, explains Breno Ferreira de Melo, conservation analyst at WWF-Brazil. The first communities served with the distribution of food and water were in Barão do Melgaço, one of the municipalities most affected by the flames, with 602,000 hectares burned in 2020, according to the SOS Daughters of Pantanal and Cerrado project.
“We have been following the fires for 20 years. But in 2020, they started earlier and in places where they didn’t usually happen. In the Pantanal there was a 95% increase in fire outbreaks as of June, compared to the previous year”, says Alice Thuault, ICV deputy director. According to her, the combination of uncontrolled fire practices and the severe drought in the state last year was the main cause of the catastrophic scenario.
From culture to emergence
SOS Daughters of Pantanal and Cerrado began as a group of women who wanted to promote the culture and art of their peoples. However, with the fires that affected everyone in the region, they decided to transform a livestreaming about art, which was already scheduled, into a solidarity campaign. “Women didn’t even have a mind for the cultural demand. The subject was the wildfires. Many indigenous ethnic groups were in mourning and could not even perform some rituals to present their culture. We realized that it was time to take advantage of the livestreaming, held on September 27, to raise funds”, says Paty Wolff, visual artist and one of the coordinators of Casa das Pretas.
Deroní Mendes, coordinator of ICV’s Social and Environmental Rights Program and coordinator of the institution with SOS Daughters of Pantanal and Cerrado, says that the fire came to further aggravate the situation of communities, which were already weakened by the Covid-19 pandemic. “Many people have lost family members and jobs to the disease. In other words, since March 2020 they were already weakened and then the fire came, which many see as punishment from nature, because the plantation was all lost and they no longer had anywhere to make a living”, she emphasizes.
ICV started to receive donations in cash and products, including those sent by WWF-Brazil and, together with Casa das Pretas, to organize the transfer to SOS Daughters of Pantanal and Cerrado, represented by the National Coordination of Articulation of Rural Black Quilombola Communities of Mato Grosso (Conaq-MT), by the Federation of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of Mato Grosso (Fepoimt) and by the Network of Traditional Pantanal Communities, which were responsible for the distribution. “Logistics is really difficult, due to bad roads. We also respect the logic of each segment. These institutions are very representative and know the particularities of all communities. They then brought the demands and took the donations”, says Alice, from the ICV.
Because of this difficulty, for example, WWF-Brazil allocated funds to hire an indigenous logistics assistant, from the Bakairi people, in order to deliver more than 80 pieces of equipment to the Bororos, such as wheelbarrows, scythes, hoes, planters and other instruments so that the community could return to planting.
Burning is an ancient practice in agriculture to clear the land before planting. In dry weather, it is not uncommon for fire to get out of control. “We were able to prove, with images from NASA, the US space agency, that, in the vast majority of cases, the fire did not originate in the communities where it caused the most victims,” says Alice. That was how the people of Estevão Bororo Taukane found themselves encompassed by the fire. “It came from outside and surrounded us. We didn’t believe it would arrive, because the Indigenous Land is cut by the São Lourenço River, but it has spread”, she recalls.
Like the Bororo, a large part of the population in the Pantanal and Cerrado region was not prepared for a fire of such magnitude. The ICV monitoring tool registered more than 26 thousand fire outbreaks in the Pantanal and Cerrado of Mato Grosso in 2020. “What we had in terms of firefighting equipment was very old. It was the result of an old donation. And the people didn’t know how to use it”, recalls Estevão.
From January to June 27, 2021, according to data from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), more than 5,500 hot spots were registered in the region. To prevent a situation like 2020 from happening – even more considering that the drought this year is worse than last year – the ICV has dedicated itself to carrying out a survey on the number of brigades fighting forest fires. Statewide, there are only 110 identified so far.
“It’s a very complicated situation, and made worse by Covid, which prevents larger mobilizations. Any fire control needs to be prepared well in advance and this is not being done. We intend to support brigades with the funds raised”, says Alice. Melo, from WWF-Brazil, says that the organization is also supporting this second stage of the project, which aims to form community brigades and to keep the donation of food and water to communities that still suffer from the impact of fire in their production areas.
Alice, from the ICV, points out that the main difference from the current dry periods is that the rainy season has been less voluminous, which does not allow the wetlands of the Pantanal to recover completely. “We are seeing the consequences of a warmer world, already ravaged by climate change,” she says.
Estevão agrees and says that many lakes near the Indigenous Land are drying up. Therefore, he sees the importance of articulating his people to raise a big discussion about climate change. Hopeful, he, who has a degree in sociology, says the community has learned from last year’s challenges and is ready for what he calls a “social revival”. “We have a lot to contribute, especially through our young people,” he says, and quotes Bóe Bororo leader Josuel Iwagejeba, who recently founded a new village, Guanandi, beside the stream of the same name – which in the Bóe Bororo language is called Paweiau – three kilometers away from Córrego Grande. “Three families are starting this village, and this is a symbolic reference for a new beginning for our people. They are there to take care of the water and keep its quality for everyone”, he concludes.
Founded in Mato Grosso state in 1991, the Centro de Vida Institute (ICV) is a non-partisan, non-profit Civil Society Organization of Public Interest (OSCIP) and its mission is to build shared solutions for the sustainability of land use and natural resources. ICV’s actions reach international, national and state levels in the themes of transparency, environmental governance and public policies, and at the municipal level through practical experiences.
WWF-Brazil is a Brazilian non-governmental and non-profit organization that works to change the current trajectory of environmental degradation and to promote a future in which society and nature live in harmony. Created in 1996, it operates throughout Brazil and is part of the WWF Network.
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