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Story Publication logo May 26, 2023

Indigenous Women Form an Alliance Against Fire in the Amazon (Portuguese)



The Apinajé people created the first female Indigenous brigade in the Amazon.

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This story excerpt was translated from Portuguese. To read the original story in full, visit DW. You may also view the original story on the Rainforest Journalism Fund website here. Our website is available in EnglishSpanishbahasa IndonesiaFrench, and Portuguese

The Apinajé volunteer brigade is the first one formed entirely by women in the Amazon transition region. Certified by Ibama's Prevfogo program, they fight to preserve nature in their territory.

"I want to show that women are strong," says brigadista Salma Apinajé. Image by Bruno Kelly/DW. Brazil, 2023.

Positioned at the head of a squad of women, Marlucia Apinajé gives the commands for the beginning of the count. After listing, one by one, the position they occupy in the line, they repeat in a loud and firm tone, "We are 29."

Dressed to fight fire, the 29 indigenous women will debut the first female volunteer brigade in the Amazon. They are from the Apinajé Indigenous Land (TI), in the north of Tocantins, and go into the field months after completing a course certified by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama).

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May is when a brigade hired by Ibama's Prevfogo program, operating in the region since 2014, conducts prescribed burning. According to this method, fire is managed in a controlled manner in the vegetation at strategic points. This prevents the spread of fires during the most critical dry phase, which runs from August to October.

Maria Aparecida Apinajé, a teacher, is also part of the volunteer squad that works with the hired fire brigade. She is one of the creators of the initiative, inspired by the Xerente female brigade, which works in the Cerrado vegetation, but which, according to the jurisdiction map, is inside the Legal Amazon.

"We seek to increase the protagonism of indigenous women. Our project is to preserve, maintain our traditions, bring environmental education, raising awareness against burning, against the destruction of our territory," explains Cida, as she is called.

Apinajé women, from the first indigenous female volunteer brigade in the Amazon, participate in the first prescribed burning activity of the 2023 fire season in the Apinajé Indigenous Land. Image by Bruno Kelly/DW. Brazil, 2023.

Aerial view of ranches near the Apinajé Indigenous Land, in Tocantins. Image by Bruno Kelly/DW. Brazil, 2023.
Chart by DW.

"I am fighting so that we don't lose our plants, our medicines, that we don't let everything run out," says Marlucia Apinajé. Image by Bruno Kelly/DW. Brazil, 2023.

The volunteer brigade Pé Apinajé Guardiãs Indígenas is the first to be formed exclusively by women in the Legal Amazon. In all, 43 brigade members from the Apinajé Indigenous Land, located in northern Tocantins, completed a preparatory course and received a certificate from Ibama. Image by Bruno Kelly/DW. Brazil, 2023.

The women volunteers work together with the fire brigade hired by Ibama's Prevfogo program in the Apinajé Indigenous Land to fight the most critical fires. In the action, the squad is divided into smaller groups and distributed throughout the affected area. Besides special clothing, they use equipment such as water pumps, blowers and mufflers to control the flames. Image by Bruno Kelly/DW. Brazil, 2023.

Prescribed burning is used by Prevfogo's firefighters at the beginning of the dry season as a way to prevent the spread of large fires. The areas considered most exposed to fires are carefully evaluated, and burning only occurs with the authorization of the cacique. In the photo, the brigade uses equipment called a pinga-fogo to start the flames in a controlled management. Image by Bruno Kelly/DW. Brazil, 2023.

During their work, the women are lodged in the Prevfogo brigade's base in the São José village. When the occurrences are more distant, the squad can spend days in the field. Many leave their homes, their work in the fields, their husbands, and children. There are also other barriers for them to join the group, such as difficulties with transportation within the Apinajé Indigenous Land. Image by Bruno Kelly/DW. Brazil, 2023.

In the Apinajé culture, women still encounter resistance to occupy some spaces. Many do not receive support from their husbands to do activities outside the home, like joining the brigade. Among the traditional activities is the handicraft with babassu leaves, used to make cofos, typical baskets. The leaves are also used as roofing in houses. Image by Bruno Kelly/DW. Brazil, 2023.

The fields in the Apinajé Indigenous Land are usually located far from the houses. The most common crops are cassava, beans, rice, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, yams, fava beans, corn, sesame, and peanuts. The collection of pequi, buriti, bacaba, cajuí, jussara, bacuri, murici, puça, oiti, babaçu and macaúba is also important for food. Image by Bruno Kelly/DW. Brazil, 2023.

The demarcation of the Apinajé Indigenous Land began in the 1980s, but was only finalized in 1997, with the publication of a presidential decree. Violent conflicts marked the process, as more than 600 families occupied the area. In the end, the route that reserved 142,000 hectares for the indigenous people excluded a portion of their traditional territory, for which the Apinajé are still fighting in court today. Image by Bruno Kelly/DW. Brazil, 2023.

The increased flow of migrants into the area traditionally occupied by the Apinajés during the military dictatorship profoundly changed the lives of the indigenous people. They opposed the construction of the Transamazonian Highway in 1970, and managed to prevent the road from being paved in their territory. Today, this initial stretch is no longer part of the highway. Image by Bruno Kelly/DW. Brazil, 2023.