Climate crisis puts Indigenous Amazonians’ Quarup funeral ritual at risk

  • The inhabitants of the Xingu Indigenous Territory have had to adapt their Quarup funeral ceremony to avoid fires and guarantee enough food for all visitors.
  • The climate crisis has left the forests drier and more flammable: over the past 20 years, 1,890 square kilometers (730 square miles) of protected forest in the Xingu have been lost to fires.
  • Deforestation because of soy and corn monocultures in neighboring regions has muddied rivers and caused wild pigs to invade traditional vegetable gardens.
  • The loss of rivers makes it difficult to properly store the pequi fruits needed during Quarup, while drought and wild pigs are damaging yucca harvests, also threatening a staple serving for the ceremony.

The sun had not yet risen when the men and women of the Mehinako people, inhabitants of the Xingu Indigenous Territory in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, started their drive to the sacred lake 2 kilometers, just over a mile, from their homes. It was the start of rituals preceding a major day of fishing to catch food to feed the guests who would be arriving from other villages for the ancient Quarup funeral ceremony, unique to the Indigenous peoples of this part of the upstream Xingu River Basin.

At the edges of the lake, while a shaman sang the songs to protect the fishermen from the stingrays and piranhas, fires were set so the community members could carry out the rituals considered fundamental to preventing interruptions during one of the most important moments of the ceremony that would draw to a close the grieving period of the family of the shaman Iamony Mehinako, who died of COVID-19 in May 2021.

One of these practices involves lighting torches and burning the hair off the bodies of the men who enter the water, and of the women who handle the fish for cooking. It’s believed the smell of burning hair scares away venomous animals and prevents other types of accidents.

The laughter and games spread a joyous mood among the celebrants, but there was also some concern. Forest fire brigade member Akuykuma Mehinako was at the gathering to help ensure that there would be no problems; special attention was being paid to make sure the flames didn’t spread and that the coals were put out before the fishing began. “The climate has changed a lot and it’s risky for us to use fire these days. It didn’t used to be like this — we would go off and let the fire burn out on its own. We can’t do that anymore,” Akuykuma said.

Fire is a key element in the Quarup ritual; it’s also used to clear the camps put up near the village where guests hang their hammocks, and also to keep August’s chill away. This is the start of the dry season in the Xingu and also time for funeral ceremonies for the illustrious dead.

If during the day temperatures run high, and the winds blow dust through the village, at night it’s common for temperatures to drop below 10° Celsius (50° Fahrenheit). “The guests stay in the camps and we have to be careful to put out any fires they may have been left burning,” Akuykuma said. The climate crisis has required the people of the Xingu to adapt not only their daily routines, but also their ancestral ceremonies.

Fires lit during preparations for Quarup. Image courtesy of Sitah.
Fish nets are cast in the holy lake a day before Quarup ends. Image courtesy of Sitah.

Watatakalu Yawalapiti is one of the daughters of the late shaman Iamony. She said fire is also used to send signals and alert others when a certain group of guests is arriving for the ritual. According to her, the chiefs of the villages in the Upper Xingu held meetings during preparations for Quarup this year to discuss concerns over fires and the necessary precautions to avoid an environmental disaster. The months of August and September are frequently referred to as the fire season in the Amazon. This year, fires spread rapidly, destroying medicinal plants and trees vital to the survival of the Xinguites, as the region’s peoples are known, including those that they use to build their traditional homes.

“We used to light fires to send signals and warm up at night. Guests would leave knowing the fires would go out by themselves. That was then, not now,” Watatakalu said. “This year we were careful to communicate with the guests that it is important that they don’t set fires and to take extra care with fire in the camps. We have changed the way we do things a lot. Today, all campfires must be put out before leaving.”

Maykuti Mehinako, chief of the village hosting the ceremony, said he can recall the days when fires caused no concern during the practices. But the decisions made in the regional meetings must be respected by all the “family members,” as the Indigenous people call themselves, who have joined efforts to change their habits. This year, not a single unintended fire was reported because of Quarup.

“The climate has changed much and we had many conversations with the chiefs before this ceremony, asking that they advise their people not to set fires anymore,” Maykuti said. “And the people understood because we all feel the effects when fire spreads, killing plants that are important to us all like the embira and pindaíba that we used to build our houses. But outside the [Indigenous] territory, [farm owners] are setting fires and this also affects us.”

Indigenous people living in the Xingu hold a fishing ritual in their sacred lake. Image courtesy of Sitah.
In a playful ritual, Indigenous people used fire to burn the hair off the bodies of those who will enter the water before fishing begins. The smell of burning hair is believed to ward off venomous animals. Image courtesy of Sitah.

Fire for subsistence

The Xingu Indigenous Territory was first reserve established in Brazil for original peoples, demarcated by the federal government in 1961. Its 26,420 square kilometers (10,200 square miles) are home to some 7,000 people of 16 different ethnicities.

But a portion of this area, once swathed entirely in the vegetation that marks the transition between the Amazon and Cerrado biomes, has been lost to fire: studies show that 25% of the reserve’s area has burned at least once, and 7% of the territory is already degraded enough to have lost its status as forest — an area amounting to 1,890 km2 (730 mi2). These figures are from a study published in March 2022 and led by researcher Divino Silverio, a professor at the Federal Rural University of Amazonia (UFRA) and member of the Science Panel on the Amazon.

Forest fires and recurring droughts are among the main factors that led to the loss of this protected forest inside the Xingu reserve over the past 20 years. The BD Burn monitoring system run by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported 393 fire outbreaks in the reserve during August and September this year, up from 222 during the same period in 2021. The Xingu reserve also ranked first among Indigenous territories in Brazil for fires reported in September of this year.

A cattle ranch next to the Xingu Indigenous Territory. Image courtesy of Sitah.

The climate crisis is causing the dry season to last longer in some parts of the territory, leaving the forests drier and more flammable. According to Silverio, the dry season in the region is already running nearly a month longer, which he says is the result of deforestation and climate change.

He said establishing conservation units and demarcating Indigenous territories are the most efficient measures for protecting the Amazon. But increasingly, these areas are becoming less efficient barriers against deforestation, forest fires and degradation, Silverio said: Once considered bulwarks against the advance of destruction, today they’ve become fragile. “There have always been Indigenous people in the region, using fires and clearing forest to survive. But the rainforest was balanced, and the fires never spread. But with today’s drier climate, fires today tend to get out of control,” he said.

Eliane Franco Martins is a member of the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), an institution affiliated with the Catholic Church that advocates for Indigenous rights. CIMI helped produce the report “Agro é Fogo” (“Agro and Fire”), on the links between land grabbing and deforestation in the Amazon, Cerrado and Pantanal biomes. According to the report, it’s important to differentiate between the fires used by Indigenous populations for millennia in a balanced and healthy manner, from the indiscriminate use of fire by intensive monoculture farming driven by agribusiness.

Martins said fire is used traditionally to help Indigenous communities grow food and keep venomous or threatening animals from entering their villages. “They have controlled traditional burns and the fire is also a way of protecting the territory and revitalizing nature. It’s a way of helping nature bear good fruit. Traditional fires do not harm nature, animals or biodiversity,” she said.

According to Martins, it’s apparent how the traditions of the Indigenous communities have been affected by factors other than climate change. “Traditional practices have been harmed by the impacts of climate change, by changes in agribusiness in the regions surrounding the Indigenous territories, and by the uncontrolled growth of cities near the territories, including construction of dams, railways, roadways and bridges.”

Controlled fire being used by Indigenous people in an area that will be used for guests to camp during Quarup. Image courtesy of Sitah.

Quarup: The start of a new cycle

Quarup is the funeral ritual held for the illustrious dead from the Upper Xingu region, which is home to nine ethnicities. It’s a time when guests bring joy to the families who have lost dear ones, and marks the conclusion of the grieving period, when people can stop crying and begin to sing, dance using adornments, and decorate their bodies with jenipapo and urucum pigments. It’s also the time with the spirit of the deceased is believed to move forward on its path to the ancestral home. According to Watatakalu, the sky must also be free of smoke for this to happen, so the soul can see its path clearly.

“We’ve noticed in recent years that the skies are always full of smoke when Quarup is held in August, so we were concerned about this. This is a night to say farewell, to end the grieving, and at night the spirits ascend. Quarup is the closure of one cycle and the start of a new one,” Watatakalu said.

Mapulu Kamayurá recalled Iamony as a shaman and an important leader. “And her grandmother and grandfather were important chiefs. We used to work together. I used to cure people with her at the hospital and in the other villages. She was my student and today, I’m alone. There’s no one else like her.” Mapulu Kamayurá is the only living woman shaman in the Xingu today.

The fight called Huka is one of the favorite events during Quarup and brings the final day of the funeral ritual to a close. Image courtesy of Sitah.
Men and women from the Upper Xingu in a dance ritual at the center of the Indigenous Mehinako village during Quarup. Image courtesy of Sitah.

Pig invasion

There are other concerns besides fires affecting the Quarup preparations. Not only are many fish needed to feed the guests, the ritual also calls for large quantities of tapioca flour to prepare the crispy yucca pancakes, or beiju, the delicacy that, together with fish, composes the traditional food of those in the Xingu. According to Chief Maykuti, the problem is that, over the past few years, their vegetable gardens have been frequently raided by wild pigs, which destroy their plants, placing their food security at risk.

Katia Yukari Ono is a community leader and technical adviser for natural resources and fire management in the reserve via the Xingu program of the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an NGO that advocates for Indigenous and environmental rights. She said there are many different factors that weigh on the traditional practices, referring to them as “combined environmental changes.” According to her, these changes are the result of new road construction that has caused the rivers and lakes to silt up; of deforestation caused by soy and corn monocultures in the region; and of the climate crisis, which has altered the planting calendar.

Ono has worked with the people of the Xingu for 19 years, and she attributed the rise in wild pig raids to the deforestation that has reduced the animals’ natural habitat and, consequently, their food sources. In a well-functioning ecosystem, jaguars would keep the wild pig population in check, but the big cats’ habitat is also shrinking and as a result, there are more pigs. Deforestation also allows the animals easier access to vegetable gardens, Ono said, forcing communities in the region to build fences to try and protect their plants.

A woman from the Xingu makes a tapioca pancake, called beiju, a central element in the diet of the Indigenous people in the region. Image courtesy of Sitah.
A boy plays with the tree trunk that symbolizes the deceased during Quarup. The trunk is raised at the center of the village and later thrown into the river. Image courtesy of Sitah.

Ataruti Mehinako not only lost her garden to the pigs, but also feels the high temperatures affecting the harvest. “The soil is warmer and the yucca plants take longer to come up. We have to carry water to the garden in the morning early to dampen the soil and try to minimize the effects of the heat. There have been times when we planted and nothing came up. Or that the plants were weak. And then there are the pigs that come through and ruin everything that’s left.”

Ataruti also tells of a river with “very clean and cool” water that dried up, also affecting the way Quarup preparations are carried out. During the funeral service, vast quantities of pequi fruit porridge are needed, both for serving to guests and as an offering to the spirits during the fishing ritual together with peppers, so they will bring many fish and provide for a plentiful meal. “We follow a whole procedure so the fish don’t swim away,” said Assalu Mehinako, the late Iamony’s son.

Pequi is one of the traditional foods of the Indigenous people of the Xingu and harvest time is party time in the villages. “When there’s no fish or porridge, guests get angry. We have to take really good care of the people coming to visit and offer them a lot of food.”

To have enough pequi during Quarup, the fruits must be picked well ahead of time and stored correctly for months so they don’t rot before it’s time to prepare the porridge. According to Ataruti, these must be kept in water for this reason. In her village’s case, this was always done in that river with clean, cool water. But the river has practically dried up since the roads connecting the farms to the cities were built.

“We have to store the pequi in the river in just such a way, really organized because if the sun gets too hot, they spoil. We store them in the river for a whole year before Quarup. We always did this here, but since the river’s dried up, we had to change places,” Ataruti said. “This river started drying up the day they opened that roadway and never came back. During the rainy season, it even got a little stronger, tried to be a river again, but as soon as the dry season came, it dried up even more. This year, 2022, it didn’t come back. Not even a little bit of water.”

Nighttime in the Indigenous Mehinako village before close of Quarup. Image courtesy of Sitah.

Banner image: Flute players during the Quarup ritual in the Mehinako village in the Xingu Indigenous Territory. Image courtesy of Sitah.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Dec. 6, 2022.