Raging fires in northern Amazon state threaten Brazil’s Yanomami people

By Thomson Reuters Feb 29, 2024 | 3:29 PM

By Bruno Kelly and Ricardo Brito

BOA VISTA/BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s northernmost state of Roraima is suffering a sharp spike in wildfires, threatening the crisis-wracked Yanomami Indigenous people and reigniting fears of catastrophe in the Amazon rainforest after months of improved deforestation data.

In just two months of this year, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) identified 2,606 fires in Roraima, compared with 2,659 during all of 2023.

In February alone, there were at least 2,002 outbreaks in Roraima, an all-time record. Since the beginning of the year, the state has accounted for 29.5% of all fires in Brazil, according to INPE data.

At least 251 blazes have been recorded on Yanomami land, bringing fresh suffering to the Indigenous community already facing a humanitarian crisis due to illegal miners on their land.

“Since last year we’ve been feeling this big change. Air humidity is very low and this has also led to problems with illness in families, especially children, and the heat is really abnormal,” Tuxaua Cesar da Silva, an Indigenous leader from the Tabalascada community, told Reuters.

Brazil’s federal government held meetings in state capital Boa Vista on Thursday to coordinate a response.

Environment Minster Marina Silva blamed the blazes on a “terrible combination” of El Nino – a climatic phenomenon weakening rainfall in the region – as well as arson and climate change.

Leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has managed to rein in the rampant deforestation that took place during former President Jair Bolsonaro’s mandate, with Amazon deforestation halving in 2023 from the previous year to its lowest level since 2018.

Yet the Roraima fires are a reminder of how delicate the situation in the Amazon remains, said Greenpeace Brazil spokesperson Romulo Batista.

He said state and federal officials should have been better prepared to deal with the blazes as it was widely expected they would occur after a bruising drought last year.

“Once the climate is as dry as it is, as hot as it is, it’s also a time when there’s more wind, all of which feeds the fire and makes it very difficult to put it out,” he said.

(Reporting by Bruno Kelly and Ricardo Brito; Writing by Steven Grattan; Editing by Aurora Ellis)