RESISTANCE AGAINST FIRES: Traditional knowledge among Tocantins indigenous brigades

By Antônio Veríssimo da Conceição, Eliane Franco Martins and Jeovane Gomes Nunes

The state of Tocantins is home to a c.14,000-strong population made up of different indigenous peoples – Karajá, Javaé, Xerente, Apinajé, Krahô, Krahô-Kanela, Karajá Xambioá, Avá-Canoeiro and Kanela do Tocantins. Some have their land demarcated, others are fighting for demarcation. The territories have been threatened by criminal fires that have gained strength over the last few years, putting at risk the continuity of the livelihood of these peoples.
Tocantins lies in the region known as Matopiba (states of Maranhão,

Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia), at the “in-betweens” of the Cerrado and Amazon regions, where grain monoculture plantations are taking over pasture lands, as part of a rapid process of illegal land-grabbing[1]. Fire spreads rapidly in the dry season, between May and September, in areas of forest or pasture, but this is not an isolated event: fires are one of the stages of a process that consists of the illegal logging, deforestation, land grabbing and the illegal seizure of water sources, all driven by the expansion of the agricultural frontier[2], with the support of large transnational mining and agribusiness corporations.

The consequences of this process are harmful to both socio-biodiversity and to human health. Fires are directly responsible for respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, sinusitis and rhinitis.

According to data collected by the National Institute for Space Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, INPE), Tocantins had 12,093 fire outbreaks in 2020[3]. In Indigenous Lands, the numbers are also alarming: 2,239 heat spots, half of which in the Parque do Araguaia Indigenous Land, which is territory of the Javaé and Karajá peoples – and other free peoples/peoples in voluntary isolation – at the Bananal Island, with a population of over 5,000 people[4]. Particularly affected was a place known as Mata do Mamão, which covers the southern region of the Inawebohona Indigenous Land, and a small part of the Parque do Araguaia. This area is much coveted by the agribusiness industry as, besides its varied natural wealth, it is also propitious for cattle-raising. In 2021, between January and November, INPE identified 9,831 heat spots in Tocantins, 2,676 being in indigenous lands, of which 1,393 occurred in Parque do Araguaia alone.


INPE/SIG BDQueimadas, which permits the visualization of heat spots in a Geographical On-line Information System (WebGis), with options for filtering into periods, regions of interest, satellites, information plans. Analysed by the Indigenist Missionary Council(CIMI Regional Goiás/Tocantins).

Fire as an element of community life

A Xerente man called on his younger brother-in-law to take the young chicks from the nest of a red macaw. Coming to the bottom of the hill, they put a length of wood in place in order to climb up and see the nest to get the macaw chicks. The younger boy climbed up, threw a stone and then another stone. When the stone broke, he said that there were no chicks in the nest. The man took away the length of wood, leaving the boy trapped on the hill, alone, hungry and thirsty.

One day a male jaguar came by and asked the boy, “What are you doing up here?”. The boy told him the whole story and the jaguar helped him get down. The boy was afraid of the jaguar, but the jaguar said that he wasn’t going to eat him. The jaguar took him home, where the female jaguar berated her husband for bringing home such an ugly, skinny boy. The jaguar asked his wife to give the boy food and she gave him some roast meat.

One day the jaguar saw the boy’s family in the forest, looking for him. The male jaguar decided to send the boy back to the village. He painted him and made him a bow and arrow. He said to the boy, “If the female jaguar wants to eat you, you can kill her”, and indeed the female jaguar did attack the boy and he killed her. When he got to the village, he told the whole story, and said that he had eaten roast meat and that it was the jaguar who had fire. All the villagers came together and went after the jaguar to find the fire. When they got to the forest, the jaguar had set fire to a jatobá tree. An argument started as to who would take the fire to the village. After all, the deer took the fire to the village and everyone had a share of the fire. Many of those who took part in the discovery of fire turned into animals such as armadillos, water-chickens and tinamou birds.[5]

For the indigenous peoples of Tocantins, fire is an important element of life. Managing fire is a significant part of their way of doing agriculture and creating socio-biodiversity.[6] In the swidden season, between June and September, families come together to clear the limits between the village and the forest, and to clean the common yard of the villages. Fire is also used for other purposes, such as hunting, fishing and religious rituals. In this way, the culture of fire has always been present among indigenous peoples, in a way that always respected nature and that the sustainability of life was guaranteed.

“Here, among my people, we take care not to burn the forest. We cultivate the land, hunt and fish, but always with great care. The fire that we traditionally use has always been for the cultivation and improvement of our crops. To produce vegetables, the land has to be cleared by burning to prevent weeds and insects. For this reason, we Apinajé always cut, dig and burn during the period from June to September, and begin to plant in October.”

Alan Apinajé

When cultivating their crops and carrying out other traditional practices involved in hunting, fishing and clearing the village environment, they make fire-breaks before starting to burn. The fire-breaks, a traditional technique for managing fire, are strips of open land free of vegetation and organic matter that prevent the fire from “jumping” to where it is not wanted. This technique prevents the fire from getting out of control. Most indigenous peoples’ farmland is close to streams and small rivers, where the land is better for cultivation. This kind of damp soil favors the burning of the swidden area and the prevention of possible forest fires.

When it is a swidden time, the whole community is responsible. They all join in, so that the fire is only being used to help the cultivation of the land. Among the different peoples of the Cerrado, including those from Tocantins, fire prevention and control are the collective responsibility of the whole community.

Livro de mitos Akwe Xerente, pp.30-36. CIMI GOTO (1991)

Indigenous knowledge in fire-fighting programs

Since 2013, indigenous fire brigades have been created as part of the National Centre for the Prevention and Control of Forest Fires (Centro Nacional de Prevenção e Combate aos Incêndios Florestais, Prevfogo), which is part of the structure of Ibama (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources). Prevfogo is responsible for the policy of prevention and control of forest fires throughout Brazil, including activities related to educational campaigns, monitoring and research, besides the training of rural producers and fire fighters.

The Federal Brigades Program, created as part of an agreement for cooperation between Ibama and Funai (National Indian Foundation), joins the traditional and indigenous knowledge of fire management to the technical and financial support of government bodies.[7] The objective is to prevent fires during the dry season and fight them when necessary. In 2020, according to Funai, there were 41 indigenous fire brigades active throughout the country, with more than a thousand indigenous firefighters involved in the protection of over 14 million hectares of indigenous lands.[8] These fire brigades are of great importance for the protection of these territories as the efficiency of the indigenous fire brigades has been clearly proved.

These indigenous firefighters are trained to carry out the prevention and control of forest fires in indigenous territories. This environmental project also promotes the generation of income for the peoples, as many firefighters are remunerated. There is a proposal put forward by the indigenous peoples that the remuneration should be extended for the whole year, as at the moment they are only paid between the months of June and December.

The firefighters use portable pumps, a kind of backpack holding 20 liters of water, dampers and blowers. The uniforms are designed specifically – protective goggles, shoes that resist burning ash, as well as clothes made of material that is heat-resistant for up to two minutes. Leggings protect the legs from noxious animals and thorns.

Indigenous fire brigades in Tocantins[9]

For Wagner Katamy Krahô-Kanela, president of the Krahô Kanela Indigenous Peoples’ Association (Apoinkk) and head of the recently formed volunteer fire brigade, the fire brigades represent a victory for the community. According to the firefighter, activities are forecast for the year 2022 for prescribed burnings within the sphere of action of the Integrated Fire Management (MIF) in the area. “Our most important aim is to protect our land against fire in a safe, organized and efficient manner,” Wagner stresses.

Besides fighting fires, the brigades also serve as a mechanism of territorial surveillance, as during their tours of inspection the indigenous firefighters may observe suspicious elements in their lands and, if there is some type of irregularity, they can report it to the appropriate authorities.

The indigenous fire brigades have played an important role in the prevention and combating of forest fires. The agreement between Funai and Ibama to provide a training course for firefighters, combined with the ancestral indigenous knowledge and techniques for the integrated management of fire, has made a significant contribution to the combat of fires. The occurrences of fires in the Brazilian Amazon, however, have also increased due to the running down of Ibama and Funai, and are a reflection of the devaluation of public environmental fire policies in Indigenous Lands[10]. Due to the size of the territories, the number of firefighters does not correspond to the real needs. Besides the institutional relationship with Prevfogo, the indigenous peoples form partnerships with municipalities and other bodies committed to the socio-environmental issue of strengthening the fire brigades and preserving the territory. One example of this is the partnership with the Indigenist Missionary Council, in the Goiás/Tocantins region, which donated fire-fighting equipment.[11]

In this context, we can say that the indigenous fire brigades are essential for the maintenance and conservation of indigenous territories and for maintaining the balance of socio-biodiversity.

Masks, backpacks, blowers and dampers were donated, a total of 138 pieces of equipment distributed to the indigenous fire brigades.

The Xerente Indigenous Fire brigade: women fighting fires

The Xerente Akwe people belong to the Jê language macro-branch, and their territory is located seventy kilometers from Palmas city, with a population of approximately 4,000 people, divided into 5 regions, with 94 villages. The local municipality for the Xerente people is Tocantínia, where they are attended to by Funai and the indigenous health center.

The Xerente territory was demarcated in two areas, at different times and with different procedures. The first, denominated the Xerente Area, known by the indigenous inhabitants as the Big Area, was demarcated in 1972; the second area, called Funil, was demarcated in 1982. With these two demarcations, the territory is over 183,000 hectares in size.

Their socio-cultural and political organization is ruled by two halves and each half has three clans: the Wahiré half (Wariré, Krozake and Kreprehi clans) and the Doí half (Kbazi, Kritô and Kuzâ clans).Their ancestry is patrilineal.[12] In the political organization of the people, the chief and the elders are important members of the community.

The construction of the TO-010 highway cut in half Xerente territory, connecting the capital Palmas to the municipalities of Pedro Afonso, Rio Sono and Aparecida do Rio Negro. For more than 20 years, the people have been tormented by the threat to pave the road, which would facilitate the entry of invaders and cause other problems. Great socio-cultural and environmental impacts were caused by the construction of the Lajeado hydroelectric dam on the River Tocantins. Other infrastructure projects, such as the Rio Sono hydroelectric plant and the Araguaia-Tocantins waterway, continue to threaten their livelihood.

The Xerente territory also suffers from projects for soybean, sugar cane and water-melon monocultures, and with extensive deforestation. When the monoculture crops are sprayed with pesticides by planes flying over the villages, it provokes serious harm to the health of the indigenous people, their farmlands and animals, contaminating the water and the soil. The pressure of agribusiness on the territory has created challenges for the villages, such as the proposal for leasing land. According to information collected by CIMI Goiás/Tocantins, the region registers significant numbers of fires in the state, and the situation is even more serious during the dry season.

It is in this context that the first indigenous women’s fire brigade was created in Tocantins in 2021. Ibama in partnership with the Akwe Fire Fighters Association for the Prevention and Control of Burnings and Combat of Forest Fires (Abix) promoted a training for 29 indigenous women in the village of Cachoeirinha. They have learned the techniques for extinguishing fires and joined the fire brigade on a voluntary basis, as the municipality of Tocantínia and Ibama claim not to have sufficient resources to hire them, as the male firefighters already receive remuneration for this function. The women will operate in 94 villages, combating fires and raising awareness of the issue.

When the surname and descent pass through the paternal side.

In some traditional farmland, the Xerente women firefighters carry out controlled burnings together with the community, putting into practice their training and their ancestral knowledge.

Even with patrilineal descent, the Xerente women have an important role in their people’s culture. In their daily activities, besides their domestic tasks, they collect fruit from the Cerrado and work in the manufacture of palm-leaf and golden grass handicrafts, a skill only they possess. With the sale of these handicrafts, the Xerente women also contribute to the sustenance of their families, besides the traditional crops that they plant together with the community. The women look after the children, paint children and young people with the clan markings, and also have the role of alphabetizing children in the native language.

Over the years, the women have won the trust of the chiefs and other leaders to play a part in socio-cultural spaces. They report to the authorities acts of deforestation and illegal logging in the Indigenous Land. In this way, both within the villages and in the outside world, they take part in the regional and national struggle movement for indigenous constitutional rights. They join the fire brigades to add further strength to the defense of the territory.

Apinajé indigenous fire brigades: in defense of the territory

The almost 3,000 Apinajé indigenous inhabitants live in 54 villages located at strategic points to guarantee territorial protection against invasions. Their social organization is made up of various complex systems of ceremonial halves and ritual groups. They are hunters and gatherers and practice subsistence agriculture.

The Apinajé people are a Timbira group and they live in harmony with the Cerrado. Formerly, the Timbira peoples made many journeys into the interior of the territory because of the many invasions. On these journeys, they carried out controlled burnings to keep the paths clear – protecting people from the thorns of the Tucum palm-trees. This was especially important for the warriors who monitored the territory, collecting fruits, hunting and fishing, and for those who went to the farest region of River Araguaia, fishing and reconnoitering the territory in search of medicines.

Fire is also used for hunting. When hunting rhea in the Cerrado, for example, a burning is carried out as rheas like the grass shoots that grow after the burning. Fire also serves as communication: after the rains, if there is a fire, it is a sign that someone is in the region. If there are no indigenous people in the area, the Apinajé people know that there is an invader and they can check who is in the territory.

The villages of the Apinajé people are located on the banks of streams that run through the territory, tributaries of the Tocantins and Araguaia rivers. The farmland is always close to the villages, and the management of fire during the traditional burnings is carried out by the community all working together. At the moment of burning, other relatives are invited to be on hand not to let the fire spread from the swidden area to the forest. The whole process is accompanied by the community right from the beginning: felling, burning, planting, clearing and harvesting.

Fire is characteristic of the fields of the Cerrado and is part of their regeneration process. Many dormant seeds need fire to be able to germinate. The fires start spontaneously in the hottest hours of the day, continue throughout the night and may go on for days, weeks or even months. Every year, however, the fires seem to be more violent and out of control, brought about by human intervention, especially agribusiness, and are of a criminal nature.

The implementation of large monoculture crops projects has had impacts on the Apinajé Indigenous Land, with the spread of soybeans, eucalyptus and, more recently, the arrival of sugar cane plantations in the region. There is also the impact of the Estreito hydroelectric dam, which has already been constructed, and the proposed Serra Quebrada dam. Besides these projects, there is also the constant threat of the implementation of the River Tocantins waterway. Charcoal kilns installed around the area lead to deforestation and environmental and climate imbalance. All these undertakings generate forced changes and affect the daily life of the indigenous people in the villages, causing internal conflicts, violence, alcoholism, a reduction in fish and other animal populations, and the pollution of rivers and streams.

The Apinajé Indigenous Fire Brigade was created in 2014 with the aim of preventing and combating forest fires. Most of the firefighters are men, but women also take part. They are young, with an average age of between 18 and 25. They are trained and equipped by Ibama to fight fires in various different types of environment or terrain, either in fields or forests, during the day or night. In the most critical period, between July and September, the firefighters are always on the alert. The Apinajé Fire Brigade keeps an operational office in a room in the Funai building in Tocantinópolis. Here there is a team that monitors and accompanies in real time the occurrences of fires in indigenous land and around, and mobilizes the firefighters to combat fires where they are detected. At times, these actions are carried out in partnership with Fire Departments from local municipalities.

The firefighters often operate in difficult terrains, facing long hikes, high temperatures and darkness. Even wearing uniforms, boots and gloves, there are risks of accidents and venomous animals’ bites, especially when the fire-fighting is at night. Because of the direct exposure to heat and because of the psychological pressure generated by the activity, some of the fire fighters may be taken ill during the operations. There have been cases where firefighters have fainted while at work, and have been taken to the local emergency unit for medical attention. In the last few years, some firefighters have shown symptoms of arrhythmia and other cardiac complications as a result of this arduous, stressful activity.

Fire prevention, an essential activity, is carried out in the months of May and June every year to reduce the risks of fires and to prevent fire getting out of control and spreading to the forest. It is the best and most efficient weapon against fires, together with raising the awareness of indigenous and non-indigenous populations in the region. Ideally, these actions should also be carried out between November and April, taking advantage of the rainy season when there is no risk of fire, with meetings and talks in the towns and villages of the area.

There is still much misinformation and lack of understanding as to why traditional burnings are carried out by the peoples of the Cerrado. Even the governmental monitoring bodies can be confused by the fires that take place in May and June in the Indigenous Lands, as though they were necessarily “bad” fires. But the success of the fire brigades shows the importance of ancestral knowledge in the management of fire.

It is the duty of federal, state and municipal authorities to adopt adequate, efficient public policies for the prevention and combat of forest fires, especially investing in equipping, hiring and training operatives. The work of the fire fighters should be more valued. In recent years, due to the systematic dismantling of Ibama, fire brigades have been reduced. There is a lack of vehicles, fuel and fire-fighting equipment. There are also delays in the signing of contracts. The lack of vehicles has forced the Apinajé fire fighters to use motorcycles to carry out their mission. But the indigenous people continue to be in readiness and looking for partnerships so that fires do not destroy their territories.

Antônio Veríssimo da Conceição is an Apinajé indigenous leader, environmental activist and social communicator.

Eliane Franco Martins holds a History degree from the Universidade Luterana do Brasil, and is a specialist in African History and Culture and in Indigenous History and Culture from the Universidade Federal do Tocantins, and a member of the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI).

Jeovane Gomes Nunes holds a Geography degree from the Universidade Federal do Tocantins and a member of the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI).