Indigenous Ritual Fires Reduce Deforestation in Central Brazil

Rick Kearns
12/26/13

The indigenous people of Brazil known as the Xavante are reducing deforestation through controlled burning in their hunting rituals; that is the finding of a study conducted by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (OCF) of Brazil and Indiana University (IU).

On December 12, Indiana University spokespeople issued a press release explaining the findings and the context of the study that involved an analysis of 37 years of satellite imagery and many years of fieldwork.

"Many Indigenous Peoples in Brazil have practiced hunting with fire, and today Brazil’s Xavante Indians often use fire to hunt game for ceremonial occasions such as weddings and rites of initiation," according to the press statement. "While the practice has also often been blamed for causing deforestation and increasing carbon dioxide emissions, the new study dispels this popular myth."

The study entitled “Indigenous Burning as Conservation Practice: Neotropical Savanna Recovery Amid Agribusiness Deforestation in Central Brazil” showed that the deforested area within the Pimentel Barbosa Indigenous Reserve, located in the central state of Mato Grosso, decreased due to indigenous management.

As a result of the controlled burning the amount of deforested area decreased from 1.9 percent in 2000 to 0.6 percent in 2010 while deforestation in the surrounding area run by agribusinesses increased from 1.5 percent to 26 percent in the same 10-year period.

The study also noted that the Xavante, whose original name is the A'wê Uptabi or true people, are careful about how they manage and contain the fires. Study co-author James R. Welch of the OCF stated that the Xavante are very careful about staying within the bounds of the reserve since big ranches surround their territory. They control the fires based on weather, winds, moisture and natural barriers, Welch stated.

"In fact, since 2005, indigenous reserves have been responsible for more than 70 percent of the reduction in deforestation in Brazil, particularly in the Amazon and cerrado,"according to study IU co-author Eduardo Brondizio.

“The Xavante situation at Pimentel Barbosa Reserve is emblematic of a puzzling phenomenon that is increasingly replicated throughout Brazil and the world: the formation of islands of environmental conservation surrounded by large-scale agribusiness,” he said.

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