The Apinajé Form the Second Indigenous Women’s Fire Brigade

40 Indigenous women learned how to fight forest fires

November, 2022 - Individuals have to go deep into the Amazon rainforest to locate fruit trees. Palm tree leaves, which are used to rebuild the roofs of traditional community houses, have become scarcer and hunting is increasingly challenging. 

Members of Apinajé Indigenous groups are aggravated by the growing number of forest fires in Brazil. MapBiomas cites 2.5 million hectares of forest were destroyed by fires between January-October 2022 of which two-million hectares are in the Amazon. 

The second all female Indigenous fire brigade will join efforts to reduce forest fires in the Amazon state of Tocantins. The group is formed by 40 Apinajé women who, after intense theoretical and practical training, learned how to fight forest fires and how to carry out prescribed burning to protect their territory, an area of 142,000 hectares located between the Araguaia and Tocantins rivers. 

Training was delivered by the National Center for Preventing and Fighting Forest Fires of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (PREVFOGO/IBAMA), in partnership with the United States Forest Service (USFS) and with support from USAID/Brazil, under the Forest Management and Fire Prevention Program in Brazil. Last year, the program formed the first female Indigenous fire brigade with 29 Xerente women in Tocantins. 

The training program for the Apinajé Indigenous women fire brigade was supported by the Casa Socioambiental Fund, the National Indigenous Peoples Foundation (FUNAI/TO), and the municipal governments of Tocantinópolis, Cachoeirinhas, and Maurilândia.

Salma Apinajé, the only local Indigenous firefighter for the past two years, will be joined by other female firefighters for the next fire season. "It is not nice being the only woman. I have no one to talk to. They (the men) talk among themselves, and keep watching me from a distance. If they say something, I smile, but I feel too shy to talk to them," she explains.

Salma is a single mother, and is proud her "wise" three-year-old daughter likes to put on her firefighter uniform, saying that she wants to "set fire" too. Despite regretting being away from her daughter for longer than she would like, Salma says she enjoys her career. She needs to work if she is to provide a better life for her daughter and parents, and she knows how important her work is for the preservation of the environment. 

Breaking a Paradigm - Keli Apinajé is also concerned about future generations. She is the mother of five children, who were left with hermother so that she could attend the course. "I think about my children's future, but other people don't think about anything. This year, most of them will have no pequis, bacuris, or cashew fruits. Last year we had a good harvest, but it was all taken by the fire this year. So much destruction. It hurts a lot," she laments. 

Initially, Keli felt insecure about the theoretical test and the field activities, however, she did not give up, and managed to convince other colleagues to stay. Keli aced the test, and  emerged as a leader among local firefighters. 

"The fire brigade helps to give voice and prominence to us, Apinajé women. Our leadership role is recent. Traditionally, women were expected to look after vegetable gardens, homes, and children and now we have seven female chiefs in our territory," says Maria Aparecida Apinajé, known as Cida, one of the leaders who promoted this partnership. She wanted this training for her community in order to guarantee the preservation of their land and culture for future generations. 

As a bilingual teacher, she explains that, in addition to destroying natural resources that are essential as food and building materials, fire also destroys local culture. The smoke prevents communities from holding their festivals, or performing healing ceremonies with medicinal herbs, which are increasingly difficult to find. "We have been fighting deforestation, illegal loggers, and large enterprises around our territory," claims Cida. 

From 2014 to 2019, women represented, on average, only 5% of all forest firefighters in Brazil, according to a technical study developed by the USFS and reviewed by PREVFOGO/IBAMA and ICMBio. In addition to fighting forest fires, women face gender discrimination, according to Ana Luiza Violato Espada, a Gender and Forest Governance expert at the US Forest Service. 

"Our study shows that cultural gender norms prevent women from joining fire brigades, or performing the roles of their choice. Women are often prevented from doing the work they would like to do, when they are forced to work in the kitchen, or simply rake the fields," explains Ana, stressing that both jobs are important, but that they must be done by choice, and not as the sole option. 

Alexandre Conde, PREVFOGO/IBAMA state supervisor in Tocantins, is an enthusiast of the initiative. He was present every day to answer any questions students might have about the activities — in their own mother tongue. Many of the participating women struggle with Portuguese. 

An anthropologist by training, Conde arrived in the region 30 years ago to teach the written structure of the language to local Indigenous people. In 2013, he was invited by IBAMA to set up the first Apinajé Indigenous brigade. Tocantins currently has 110 Indigenous firefighters. 

Indigenous People are excellent firefighters, explains Conde, because they know the area and find it easy to communicate with local people. The female fire brigade was created at a particularly important moment: "It's a major accomplishment. It shows appreciation for the power of women within the Apinajé culture. And this will strengthen conservation and preservation in the area," adds Conde. 

Integrated Fire Management -  IFM is a relatively recent approach to fighting forest fires in Brazil. It consists of several planning and management strategies to prevent and control forest fires. One of these strategies is prescribed burning, the practice of setting fire in a controlled manner in certain areas. It is important to understand the difference between prescribed burning and forest fires. The first is a type of controlled fire, applied during the rainy season to help prevent severe fires. Uncontrolled fires are usually larger and can be caused by natural phenomena or more commonly, by criminal acts. 

Every year, members of the Apinajé fire brigade and the wider community discuss and agree on important preservation sites, such as villages, sacred places, and water springs and where to apply prescribed burning. When fires reach these previously burned areas at the height of the dry season, they tend to have a much smaller impact on the community. 

Forest fire prevention does not end with training. The next steps for the Apinajé Indigenous brigades include seed collection and seedling production, prescribed burning, and exchanges with other Indigenous brigades in Tocantins and Maranhão. These actions are included in the plans for a project recently approved by the Casa Socioambiental Fund, with technical assistance from the USFS. This will be another major win for these women, who consider themselves Mē nija kuwy pa xwynh (those who put out fires).