“Guardians of the Forest”: an all Indigenous women fire brigade is trained in Tocantins State


“We have a huge barrier to deal with: sexism. Some people think they shouldn't count on women because we are not capable, but they are wrong. We can run a house, take care of our kids, and do five or six things at the same time. Now they believe in us. They've given us visibility and recognition,” says Vanessa Xerente, 32, who lives at the Cachoeirinha village.


Vanessa belongs to the Xerente Indigenous group, and lives in Tocantínia (in the middle western state of Tocantins). She is part of a group of 29 volunteers who completed the first firefighting training program specifically aimed at women. The course topics included environmental education, fire behavior, organization, and safety, as well as controlled fire and mobilization techniques.


The training program was held between August 18 and 20 by the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (PREVFOGO/IBAMA), in partnership with the US Forest Service (USFS) and the Association of Xerente Fire Brigades (ABIX). USAID/Brazil supported the activity under Brazil's Forest Management and Fire Prevention Program. 

This initiative is part of an effort by ABIX to review the role of Indigenous women in environmental and social actions, making sure they are fully engaged and empowered. Traditionally, Xerente women – as in many other Indigenous groups – devote their time to household chores, such as cooking, and taking care of their house and family.

“There was a demand from women to be more actively engaged, and we thought of empowering them. The places filled very quickly. In many aspects, women are better qualified than men: they are more sensitive and organized, and are very good at teaching and educating, as this is a role they are used to playing in their communities,” says Pedro Paulo Xerente, president of ABIX.

For Marcelo Siqueira de Oliveira, USFS Forest Fire consultant and one of the teachers, the trainees’ dedication and engagement was exemplary. 

“They proved to be tough and strong, much more so than many men. We were surprised by how well they completed some tasks, like opening a defense line with a hoe. The quality of their work was very good,” he added. The program also had another instructor, Bolivar Xerente, who is Indigenous and also helped with the translation.

The female team will now reinforce the Xerente Fire Brigade, which already had 22 men trained as firefighters. The Brazilian Indigenous fire brigades have been mentioned in the same UN report that credited traditional peoples as “guardians of the forest”. 

Every year, during the dry season, the region is faced with a high number of hotspots and fires, which often reach the forest. 

“Our situation encouraged me to join a volunteer fire brigade. Thanks to this training, I will now be able to contribute even more to the environment – especially at a time when our land is consumed by fire, and we lack a clear environmental policy. At the end of the course, I made a commitment: to bring our communities and villages closer together, and show them the importance of not setting fires. When people destroy the forest, Mother Nature asks for help,” adds Vanessa.

In addition to strengthening the fire brigade, women will also play an important role as knowledge multipliers in their communities, leading on educational activities. “We are aware that only fighting forest fires will never be enough. We also have to fight the lack of information," says Pedro.