As the Amazon burns, its Indigenous inhabitants choke on the haze

  • Forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon increased this year, with much of the smoke generated concentrating in the state of Acre and disproportionately affecting the health of Indigenous people.
  • At the peak of the fires, in July and August, a total of 88,400 hectares (218,400 acres) of land burned, a 20% increase from the 76,400 hectares (188,800 acres) burned in the same period in 2020.
  • Recorded cases of respiratory disease increased by almost 8% from June to September 2021 over the previous year, according to data from the Acre state health department.
  • Indigenous people, who have lower immunity and a higher incidence of pre-existing medical conditions, are among the most at-risk groups to the smoke pollution, compounded by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

RIO BRANCO, Brazil — The intensification of forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon is increasingly impacting the health of local populations, with a marked effect on the region’s Indigenous peoples. Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, the risk of respiratory ailments in northern states such as Acre is escalating.

At the peak of the fires in Acre between July and August, a total of 88,400 hectares (218,400 acres) of land was burned, a 20% increase from the 76,400 hectares (188,800 acres) burned in in the same period in 2020, according a study developed by Projeto AcreQueimadas, which used data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Recorded cases of respiratory disease increased by almost 8% from June to September 2021 over the previous year, according to data from the Acre state health department. Asthma, chronic obstructive lung disease, upper respiratory tract infection, and community-acquired pneumonia were among the many diagnoses.

“Today the Amazon is becoming a wood stove,” Yoka Manchineri, an Indigenous nurse specializing in Indigenous health, told Mongabay at a college in Rio Branco, the Acre state capital, where she participated in a meeting with the state’s Indigenous health counselors.

Yoka Manchineri works to assist Indigenous people seeking health care in Rio Branco, the capital of Acre state. Image by Alexandre Cruz Noronha for Mongabay.

An ethnic Manchineri woman, Yoka Manchineri moved from her native village in the state’s southern region to the capital when her mother got sick. As a trained and practicing nurse, she said she worries about the impact of forest fires on the health of the population, especially Indigenous peoples, who tend to be more susceptible to infections.

“Every day we see [forest] burning, it complicates the issue of Indigenous health a lot, because we Indigenous people have a lower immunity,” she said. “Forest fires affect both our respiratory health as well as food safety, because we survive with nourishment from nature.”

The lowered immunity also leaves Indigenous peoples more likely to need hospitalization and to suffer serious illness from COVID-19. According to the U.N., globally, more than 50% of Indigenous peoples over 35 years old have type 2 diabetes; they also have higher rates of maternal and infant mortality, malnutrition, cardiovascular diseases and infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, making them one of the highest-risk groups in the current pandemic.

Aerial view of the city of Rio Branco, capital of Acre state, during a period of intense fires in September 2021. Image by Alexandre Cruz Noronha for Mongabay.

Smoke and morbidity

There aren’t clear official numbers about the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous people’s health. After contacting several governmental institutions, Mongabay received a statement from the Ministry of Health’s Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (SESAI) saying that notifications of morbidities increased from April to October compared to the rest of the year in both 2019 and 2020, without providing any information about 2021. But it added that “it is not possible to associate the period of the year and the notification of diseases such as flu syndromes and severe acute respiratory syndromes, which are the most frequent morbidities in these territories.”

The Ministry of Health said that in 2019, the Special Indigenous Sanitary Districts (DSEI) in the northern region had the highest number of notifications in the period from May to August, whereas in 2020 it peaked in the month of June. Despite the government’s attempt to show a disparity in the time of the year when diseases increased, both peaks in 2019 and 2020 happened within the window of the peak burning.

Ayany Huni Kuin, 22, is from the municipality of Jordão and has lived in Rio Branco for the past five years. An Indigenous artisan attending medical school, she says she and her family commonly suffer from the fires. “The smoke in the city is a lot more complicated than in our Indigenous territory. Here [in Rio Branco], together with grass and trees, there is trash being burned,” she told Mongabay at her home.

She said many children living in her neighborhood recently fell sick from the smoke. “There is not a lot of wind here [in the city] so you get affected by the smoke, it harms a lot our health,” she said. “The smoke comes straight to our throat, and you get sick really quick.”

Wary of the discrimination that Indigenous people often face in city hospitals, Ayany Huni Kuin said she’s turned to traditional medicine from her people to treat herself and the children.

This image shows that federal government-owned lands had the largest number of forest fires from July-August 2021 in Brazil’s Acre state. The graph contains data from the LabGAMA–Acre Queimadas Project, and ZEE, MMA, Incra. Image courtesy of Silva et al. (2021).
Located in the southwestern Amazon, the Brazilian state of Acre recorded air pollution levels well in excess of the safe limit recommended by the WHO between August and October 2021. Image by Alexandre Cruz Noronha for Mongabay.

Four times above the safe limit

Acre has the largest operational air-quality monitoring system in the Brazilian Amazon, with 30 sensors distributed across the state’s 22 municipalities. The real-time data from the system paints a bleak picture: particulate matter in the air is “two to three or even four times higher” than the safe limit recommended by the World Health Organization, mainly in Acre’s eastern region, said Sonaira Silva, coordinator of the Laboratory of Geoprocessing Applied to the Environment at the Federal University of Acre (UFAC).

The dry season, from August to October, saw peak wildfires and, as a result, poor air quality, Silva said. Some of the smoke affecting Acre’s municipalities is generated within the state, but some also comes from neighboring states, such as Amazonas, Pará and Mato Grosso. “The smoke does not respect the boundaries of states, municipalities, or land divisions,” Silva told Mongabay at her home, where she has created a lab to monitor data during the pandemic, when the university mandated remote working.

Nestled along Brazil’s border with Peru and Bolivia, Acre has been called “the place where the wind makes the curve”; it’s here where the moisture-rich air currents carrying the Amazon’s “flying rivers,” swerve from the east to the southeast.

Sonaira Silva, a researcher at the Federal University of Acre (UFAC), explains the multiplier effect of climate change and global warming impacted by carbon emissions when there are no effective policies to control fires in the Amazon Rainforest. Image by Alexandre Cruz Noronha for Mongabay.

Most of the fires in Acre in July and August occurred on federal lands (34%), followed by private properties (29%), settlements (25%) and conservation areas (10%), according to a study co-authored by Silva and fellow UFAC researchers. Indigenous reserves accounted for just 1% of fires, but their inhabitants are among the most heavily impacted, the study shows.

While small-scale slash-and-burn clearing of deforested areas to prepare the land for cattle pasture is common, most of the smoke generated comes from large fires on large areas of land, typically spanning more than 10 or 20 hectares (25-50 acres), Silva said.

“There is a great extent of areas, between 40% and 60% of all forest fires, that aim at renovating the soil, especially for pasture,” she said, adding that this method for preparing pasture is still low-tech and low-cost but has a high environmental impact. “These fires could be avoided.”

Another recently published study shows that 17 of Acre’s 22 municipalities are threatened by extreme heat due to deforestation and climate change. The researchers, from various government agencies and the University of São Paulo, say it’s the first study to combine analyses of deforestation, climate change and human health. Its findings suggest that heat stress in the region, under the combined effects of Amazon savannization and climate change, could by 2100 exceed humanity’s ability to adapt.

“We suggest that by 2100, savannization of the Amazon will lead to more than 11 million people exposed to heat stress that poses an extreme risk to human health under a high emission scenario,” the researchers say.

They added that large-scale deforestation of the Amazon rainforest will amplify the risk of exposure to extreme heat associated with climate change on local and regional scales: “These heat levels, which will be physiologically intolerable to the human body, will profoundly affect highly vulnerable regions.”

Forest fires on the flanks of the AC-90 highway, the so-called Transacreana Road, on the outskirts of Rio Branco, capital of the state of Acre. Image by Alexandre Cruz Noronha for Mongabay.

Deforestation’s contributions to the heat stress will affect the Amazon region most severely due to the weak health, infrastructure and income parameters here. There’s also the “limited ability of these regions to respond to the health challenges induced by the combined effects of climate change and deforestation,” the study said, noting that it was in Brazil’s Amazon region where health services collapsed first during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The combined impact of climate change, increased heat and smoke from forest fires is already making itself felt. Indigenous nurse Yoka Manchineri said she fears that if the fires keep increasing, the livelihood of Indigenous peoples will be threatened.

“If the situation continues as it is, with fires growing, within a few years there will be no forest, no Indigenous peoples, no game to hunt,” she said. “And this is not just for the Indigenous peoples, I believe it is for the world. The world will miss it. What do we breathe? We breathe in oxygen, we breathe in the forest, and we have to stop burning it.”

Banner image: Ayany Huni Kuin with her family in Acre. Image by Alexandre Cruz Noronha for Mongabay.

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Alves de Oliveira, B. F., Bottino, M. J., Nobre, P., & Nobre, C. A. (2021). Deforestation and climate change are projected to increase heat stress risk in the Brazilian Amazon. Communications Earth & Environment, 2(1). doi:10.1038/s43247-021-00275-8

Silva, S., Silva, I. S., Nascimento, E. S, & Melo, A. W. F. (2021). Alerta de queimadas até 31 agosto 2021. Projecto AcreQueimadas. Retrieved from