Ikpeng puts out bonfire used to bake fish | Manoela Meyer/ISA

The goal is zero fire

Instituto Socioambiental
Oct 31 · 10 min read

In the Xingu, indigenous peoples confront the climate crisis and drastically reduce uncontrolled fires in their territory

By Clara Roman, journalist, ISA
Video: Manoela Meyer/ISA

“We will all die in the heat,” affirms chief Yantanïpo Ikpeng, even though at seven in the morning the air is fresh in Moygu village, Xingu Indigenous Park (TIX). Yantanïpo, also known as Melobó, is worried. “We’re afraid that the animals will disappear, the fruits will fall, the fish will die,’’ he says.

This concern has led the indians to act so that fires that burned swathes of Amazonia in 2019 wouldn’t reach the Ikpeng lands in the Mid-Xingu, state of Mato Grosso. Since 2010, the indigenous peoples have adapted their traditional practices to climate change and taken steps so that their use of fire does not lead to accidental fires. “Today we are being really careful with our use of fire. Because it was causing a lot of damage, destroying our natural resources,” explains Antenu Ikpeng, a fire brigade officer for PrevFogo. “The forest is our market.” The forest is a source of food, medicinal herbs and construction material for village homes.

Indigenous people have always used fire during plantation, in the management of their traditional farmland and in other activities such as collecting construction materials for houses and fishing. But in recent years, they have begun to notice a change in the forest. Once humid, it has become dry and flammable, allowing fires to get out of control. Following a large scale fire in 2010, they resolved to change some of their practices.

Border between and surrounding Xingu Indigenous Territory shows contrast between forest and plantation. | Manoela Meyer / ISA

With support from ISA, communities established the “Fire Management” project, which seeks to manage fires in collaboration with the peoples of the Mid, Lower and Upper Xingu within the TIX. In 2015, this work intensified with the aid of the National Fund for Climate Change. In addition to the activities of PrevFogo, and in parallel with operations throughout the territory, the ISA team was directly engaged in activities on the ground, creating community agreements in villages of the Ikpeng, Kawaiwete, Yudja, Trumai, Wauja and Matipu peoples. In all of these places there has been a reduction in the number of hotspots in recent years. The project also involves monitoring hotspots and areas of impact via satellite data.

Watch the video that tells this story:

Until the 20th century, TIX was surrounded by forest. Trees were being felled to make way for plantations of soya, corn, sesame and cotton, among other monocultures. The surrounding deforestation, coupled with global climate change, has also altered the environment within the indigenous territory, the only place where forest has survived, and the fire started to become uncontrollable. “The sun has become really hot, favouring the fires. We believe this to be an influence caused by white men who cut down the forest,” states Magaró Ikpeng. “The fire didn’t spread before.”

“The work of ISA,” according to Kátia Ono, project coordinator, was “to put a finger in the wound,” Indigenous peoples discovered where the problems were and how they could find solutions. Based on this, they tested other approaches to working with fire. This is how new management practices have arisen, based on a cultural framework developed and modified over the centuries that could be adapted to the current situation.

Doni Ikpeng | Manoela Meyer/ISA

“It took us four, five years to convince the elders. Fires typically started when we were clearing for plantation. We explained to them that it couldn’t be this way, because fire was reaching the forest and we were losing everything, losing the forest,” recounts Doni Ikpeng. It took a lot of discussion, lectures in the schools. But it yielded results. “Today in the Moygu village, we want zero fires.”

The data confirms these reports. In 2010, in the Mid and Lower Xingu, target regions for the project, around 100.2 thousand hectares were turned to ashes. The following year this figure fell to 16.5 thousand hectares. In 2016, while the Upper Xingu saw 210 thousand hectares burned, just 7 hectares were affected in the Mid and Lower Xingu. In 2018, the Mid and Lower regions of the XIngu, within the TIX, managed to reduce the number of fires to zero. In 2019, even with fires raging throughout Amazonia, only 1600 hectares were burned in this part of the Xingu.

Forest area hit by fires in Middle Xingu, region where ikpeng live

The majority of solutions came from indigenous peoples themselves. The Ikpeng, for instance, changed the way they built their houses. Previously the roofs were made from sapê, a dry highly flammable grass. They switched to inajá, a palm tree that can also be used for making roofs, but that doesn’t need to be burned every year to stimulate regrowth.

In fact, sapê has become a serious challenge as it likes to grow where fire has passed and impedes the recuperation of the forest. In the areas around the Moygu village a lot of sapê appeared in an areas affected by the fires. It has been at least five years since they managed to control the focus of fires in the region. And where once there was only sapê, the forest is now returning.

Sapezal area: after years without fire, forest begins to regenerate | Manoela Meyer / ISA

Today the vast knowledge indigenous peoples have of forest management is key. They planted pequi and mangabeira trees, the leaves of which have chemical properties that prevent the sapê from returning. Little by little, other plants develop.

Ikpeng changed the way they built their houses, using inajá instead of thatch
Aerial View of Ikpeng Traditional House | Manoela Meyer / ISA

“People are more aware now that they shouldn’t practice slash and burn. Any type of activity with fires worries them and they put it out,” explains Magaró. “See that area of sapê? It caught fire three or four times. It was recuperating, and caught fire. It started growing back, then caught fire again. There is more sapê than trees. But there, in the distance I saw that it’s starting to come back. We just can’t allow fires to spread so that nature recuperates,” she states.]

Akuyalu Txicao | Manoela Meyer/ISA

“Now that we’ve been able to stop the forest from burning, everything is recovering. Regenerating. It’s beautiful and we are so happy about this,” says Umpá Ikpeng.

A day of fishing

Ikpeng fish in the timbo | Manoela Meyer / ISA

It’s a fishing day — timbó day. On a lake in the middle of the Xingu river, the Ikpeng beat the water with timbó, a grass that poisons the fish but that doesn’t harm humans. Around the edge of the lake families camp in their hammocks and prepare fires.

Camp in the woods during timbo | Manoela Meyer / ISA

When the fish begin to die and float to the surface the women go into the lake to collect them in their nets. And the men with bows and arrows.

The fish is smoked all night long on these fires — moquéns.

Bonfire for grinding timbo fish | Manoela Meyer / ISA

At 7 in the morning families start leaving the camp to return to the village, taking with them what remains of the smoked fish. Children help to collect water from the lake to put the fires out. Not a single ember is left burning. In the past, they didn’t have to worry about this because leaf cover was extremely humid and the fire went out by itself. But with climate change, they have become more concerned about the embers.

Ikpeng changed their practices and started to erase the bonfires after the timbo one by one | Clara Roman / ISA

“During timbó, we weren’t worried about the fire. We were sure the fire would go out, it was damp and the fire didn’t reach the leaves under the soil. Today we are really concerned about it, we don’t leave anything smoking. We know that leaving just a little smoke could lead to forest fires,” explains Doni.

Fire for planting

The use of fire for plantation is an ancient practice. Fire clears the area for plantation and guarantees the presence of sunlight and fertile soil for agriculture. After cutting down bigger trees and making fires, it is time to plant. After two years, the area is abandoned so that the forest can regenerate. And it is the fires used to open these areas that guarantees the germination of the species that will reforest and that will attract animals for hunting. All of this without a drop of pesticide.

The timing of the fire is a delicate matter for the Ikpeng. Burning too soon or too late could put everything at risk, jeopardising the harvest for families throughout the year. The signs used to be clear: the yellow ipê flowered. When the flowers fell and the cicadas began to sing it was time to burn for plantation. In just a few days they knew the first rains would fall, bringing an end to the long dry season in the region and preventing the fire from spreading.
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Antenu Ikpeng | Manoela Meyer/ISA

Everything has changed now because the first rains are coming later and later. “We used to read the cicada singing and the ipê flowers as signs. Today we wait for the second rain because we’re afraid the fire will spread into the forest,” notes Antenu. “Nowadays if we burn to plant in this heat the manioc doesn’t sprout, the watermelon seeds burn. Because the soil is so hot.”

They’ve also started building firebreaks on all the plantations. The firebreak is a long corridor around the area set to be burned, where the indians remove all the vegetation and leaves from the ground. It’s an area without organic material that stops fire from reaching the forest “I’m really happy with this firebreak” shares Yakuña Ikpeng from the Arayó village. To one side, untouched forest. On the other, a scorched area where plantation will soon begin. “Every plantation owner makes their own firebreak. We often go together, the whole family goes, wives and children, or sometimes we go alone and clear, cut and rake it away. To make a clearing,” explains Yakunã.

Firewood firebreaks prevent fire from spreading through the forest | Manoela Meyer / ISA

“With the knowledge of the white man we adopted the term “firebreak”. Today all the plantations have a firebreak. The Ikpeng used to burn an area, leave it and the fire died there”, notes Antenu.

The Ikpeng have also changed the time that they burn their plantations. It used to be when the sun was hottest. Now they prefer the end of the afternoon. “Now we have the patience to use the fire correctly, managing it. Clear an area, make a firebreak and burn just that area. We don’t go around burning and starting fires, leaving them to burn and spread,” explains Umpá Ikpeng, leader of the Arayó village. “In the past, after building fires with branches of urucum we took torches or branches of bacaba palm leaves and started fires to make way for planting. The area burned well, just a little at the edges and then the fire would go out. But these days my father says the fire is different. Anything you burn gets out of control. You burn some rubbish, don’t take care of it, and it becomes a huge fire. Fire isn’t what it used to be,” affirms Magaró.

Yakunã Ikpeng shows how to make a rake to remove dried leaves from firewood | Kamatxi Ikpeng

Haven’t you destroyed enough?

Magaró Ikpeng | Manoela Meyer/ISA

“Non-indians often ask us: why are you protecting the forest? Why do you want to keep the forest standing? We ask: but haven’t you destroyed enough?”, explains Magaró. The Ikpeng were forced to abandon their ancestral lands in the 1960s when they were relocated to the Xingu Indigenous Park. Their ancestral land became pasture. “Didn’t you destroy our ancestral territory? Where my ancestors lived, my grandparents, my great grandparents? We were transferred to the Xingu, we live here now, because you destroyed our homelands.”

Chief Melobó was one of those born in the ancestral territory who had to move to the Xingu. “We didn’t burn, nor did we destroy. We know how to protect our forest,” he states. “The government is destroying everything. It doesn’t want to see the forest standing. What will it be like for my grandchildren with the politics we have today?”.

“We don’t protect the forest just for the sake of the forest, but for the future of our children, our grandchildren. The forest is their home, their food, their medicine. Just as you protect your homes. We don’t want to hear you asking anymore: why do you want to keep the forest standing?”, concludes Magaró.

Aerial view of Moygu village and surroundings, Xingu Indigenous Territory | Fernanda Ligabue / ISA

Instituto Socioambiental

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O ISA tem como foco central a defesa de bens e direitos sociais, coletivos e difusos relativos ao meio ambiente, ao patrimônio cultural e aos direitos dos povos

Social Environmental Stories

From Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental (ISA)

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