This article was written by Alexandra Schwarz-Schilling, Living Gaia’s Founder. Support Living Gaia’s climate action in Acre, Brazil with Plan A.

Promoting Landownership of indigenous people helps to protect the forest and all its inhabitants and create a buffer zone for the “Uncontacted” in Acre, Brasil.

When Jair Bolsonaro won the election in November 2018, we – the Living Gaia e.V. – and the whole community of friends of the Huni Kuin (and of course many other groups and people in Brasil and the whole world) where in a real state of shock. 

This reality came fast and unexpected. None of us had even heard the name Bolsonaro until the summer of 2018. His election campaign was already very threating for everybody who loves nature and culture. Illegal deforestation started to rise immediately during the campaign and all of us still hoped that cup would pass us by. But no – on November 28th we had to face a very inconvenient truth: A majority in Brasil had voted for the “Trump Version” of South America. 

Changing tides for Amazon conservation

When we started our activity in Brasil in 2011 and in the Amazon in 2013, Brasil was still a role model in dealing with the Amazon. This role it had developed during President Lula’s term in the years from 2003 to 2011. In that period deforestation dropped by 70%. Much of this success is directly related to Marina da Silva. She was the minister for the environment from 2003 – 2008 and extended the network of protected areas enormously. This success has been achieved despite high beef and soy prices, which in previous years had pushed deforestation upward, and during a time that Brazil had rapid economic growth and made important progress in reducing poverty, hunger, and inequality. Brazil’s reduction in emissions from deforestation in those years was the largest contribution so far by any country—rich or poor—to reducing global warming pollution.

More factors responsible for this accomplishment include enforcement actions by prosecutors, on both the federal and state levels; incentives created by Norway’s pledge of up to $1 billion in results-based compensation; the concerted pressure exerted by non-government organizations (Greenpeace) on the government and the soy and beef industries; and the positive response by those industries, resulting in the 2006 soy and 2009 beef moratoria. Ultimately, however, it was the change in the political dynamic of the deforestation issue due to years of effort by Brazilian civil society that made these actions and this success possible.  

Data-driven conservation of ecosystems

The collection and publication of data on the ever-increasing rates of deforestation in Brazil from the late 1980s to the dawn of the new millennium had caused such an outcry among national and international organizations that a large collective effort by politicians, economic operators and environmental organizations had been successful. This is important because we find today in 2019, where so much more data is available, that the situation has gotten terribly worse and such a collaborative effort seems to have become a long way off.

Since 2014, and especially after 2016 and the rise of President Michel Temer, the administrative branch, legislative branch, and the nation’s supreme court, have increasingly moved to relax environmental laws including Brazil’s Forest Code, introducing an amnesty on illegal deforestation fines, and reducing funding to environmental agencies, causing deforestation rates to increase. 

The presidency of Jair Bolsonaro is accelerating the worsening trend enormously. He sacked key environmental officials and slashed enforcement. His message: The Amazon is open for business. Since his inauguration in January, the rate of deforestation has soared by as much as 92%, according to satellite imaging.

Indigenous lands are threatened by illegal fires

The illegal deforestation has exploded, as well as the fires lit by the farmers to clear more territories, some of which are still not extinguished. Soon after we started to realize what disaster we will be going to face in the Amazon, especially for the indigenous communities we understood that the only action that would make a difference now was protecting the land and the indigenous people directly. Satellite data shows very precisely that the forest is only safe in the indigenous territories.  The indigenous communities are now dependent on international support. They need international contacts, as only these can protect them from extermination and murder, if at all.


The many uncontacted indigenous groups, who are considered to be the most vulnerable people on the planet, and who have been largely protected by the Brazilian Indian Authority, FUNAI, are threatened with extinction as contact with civilization brings them disease and death. FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, is the Brazilian government body that establishes and carries out policies relating to indigenous peoples. FUNAI is responsible for mapping out and protecting lands traditionally inhabited and used by these communities.

It is charged with preventing invasions of indigenous territories by outsiders. Bolsonaro divided the FUNAI into two parts and moved it away from the Ministery of Justice to the ministery of Agriculture and to a new ministry of women, family and human rights controlled by an evangelical pastor. The Environmental Protection Agency IBAMA – founded in 1989 -, whose main task was to punish environmental offences such as deforestation has also been totally destabilized. 

According to experts, the disarray at IBAMA is largely due to the firing of the heads of the agency’s state bodies, which carry out most of the deforestation-monitoring operations. In February, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles axed 21 of the 27 state superintendents in a single day. Most of them are still not replaced. Without leadership, there is no proper planning for operations to curb illegal deforestation. IBAMA’s website must now announce in advance when and where each operation will take place, even though it’s obvious that the success of the raids depends on secrecy and the element of surprise. This advance publicity also increases the risks to IBAMA agents, leaving them more vulnerable to criminal attacks.

Due to this situation it is more than urgent to take action. 

Imagining less destructive human activities

Five decades ago, Brazil incentivized millions of its people to colonize the Amazon. Today their logging yards, cattle enclosures and soy farms sit on the fringes of a vanishing forest. Powered by murky sources of capital and rising demand for beef, a violent and corrupt frontier is now pushing into indigenous land, national parks and one of the most preserved parts of the jungle.

(Credit: Living Gaia)

The pictures about the burning Amazon have circled the news a lot in the past months. Many fires are still burning and the overall situation in the Amazon is more than alarming. Most of them were lit by farmers. Most of the fires appear to be on the edge of the forest. That’s because fire is often used to burn through newly felled forests that have been cleared to make way for pastures. It’s a technique known as “slash and burn”. The pastures are then allowed to grow for a few years, before being burned again to boost the nutrients in the soil.

Therefore, fires and deforestation are intertwined in the Amazon. It’s a relationship that’s clearly visible in satellite data. It’s a vicious circle as fire after fire, as well as other farming activities, damage surrounding forests making them more prone to future fires.

Imagining new

Scientists warn that decades of human activity and a changing climate has brought the jungle near a “tipping point.” The rain forest is so-called because it’s such a wet place, where the trees pull up water from the earth that then gathers in the atmosphere to become rain. That balance is upended by deforestation, forest fires and global temperature rises. Experts warn that soon the water cycle will become irreversibly broken, locking in a trend of declining rainfall and longer dry seasons that began decades ago. At least half of the shrinking forest will give way to savanna. With as much as 17% of the forest lost already, scientists believe that the tipping point will be reached at 20% to 25% of deforestation even if climate change is tamed. If, as predicted, global temperatures rise by 4°C, much of the central, eastern and southern Amazon will certainly become barren scrubland.

(Credit: Living Gaia)

In this desolate situation new alliances must be built. The indigenous communities are the guardians and the best friends of those who love the forest and understand its overall role in the interdependent life of the planet. 

Indigenous people do not think of land resources and commodities, but of the land of their ancestors, their myths, their songs. They are persecuted and discriminated because they do not fit the logic of a neo-capitalist society. Bolsonaro wants to turn them into “good Brazilians”.

indigenous led amazon conservation in Acre

(Credit: Living Gaia)

We see a great opportunity in the cooperation of international NGOs and indigenous communities. There are many cultural projects that have spawned this collaboration and provide good examples of what such collaboration could look like. This kind of real partnership is new. Many indigenous people still feel colonized but not “discovered” yet.

It is high time to truly discover the treasures of indigenous culture and engage in an exchange that understands that what we learn and experience through contact is at least as valuable as “progress” in the form of technology and information. Yet it is very clear to our indigenous friends that only together we all have a future and that it is high time to raise the indigenous voice. Together we plan to give ownership of territory to the indigenous community to support reforestation and build an exchange centre for intercultural activities between indigenous and non-indigenous people. Please support our land purchase project in Acre and empower the people of the Huni Kuin with Plan A. 

This article was written by Alexandra Schwarz-Schilling, Living Gaia’s Founder. Support Living Gaia’s climate action in Acre, Brazil with Plan A.