Flames of Amazonia

Mapping fires within indigenous lands of the Amazon rainforest.

Fires in the Amazon

The Amazon plays a massive role in the Earth’s ecosystem and is also an iconic symbol of environmental vulnerability, indigeneity, and international cooperation.

Fires in the Amazon are seasonal, but fire intensity since 2001 has spiked this past summer, correlating with a relatively recent increase in deforestation efforts. In August 2019 alone, the Amazon is said to have had 80,000 fires—the highest ever recorded in a month. [1]

We identified fires in indigenous territories recognized by Fundación Nacional del Indio (FUNAI) using data on all fire events detected through MODIS from 2000 to 2019 from NASA's FIRMS project.

The Amazon is home to indigenous communities

Mainstream media coverage tends to focus on the environmental damage of the Amazon forest fires (eg: loss of wildlife and biodiversity, emissions into the atmosphere, local air pollution etc.) much more so than the consequential displacement of indigenous groups residing in the Amazon.

Approximately 6,345 indigenous territories or regions have been identified within the Amazon. [2] According to ScienceDaily, with increasing plans for economic development and infrastructure, a vast majority of indigenous lands alongside protected areas in the Brazillian Amazon are at high risk of experiencing disaster. [3] Despite this, indigenous groups are currently at the forefront of the movement to protect the rainforest against further deforestation, illegal logging, and other human invested harmful environmental activities.

Our research focus

To what extent are indigenous lands affected by deforestation-related fires?

Indigenous land stewardship is proven to be vital to the preservation of the Amazon rainforest: demarcated indigenous lands are protected both by the law and by residing tribes against incursions by loggers and cattle ranchers. As such, statistics show that rates of deforestation drop significantly within indigenous borders. [4]

However, the protections nominally offered by the Brazilian government are precarious at best. The demarcation process that protects ancestral lands is often slow to complete or altogether paralyzed, subject to shifting political agendas and bureaucratic fine print. Moreover, protections to already demarcated lands are often unenforced by local government agencies, frequently leaving vulnerable indigenous communities to fend for themselves against illegal invasions and land disputes. [5]

Since the start of his term in January, President Bolsonaro has made attempts to defang the two government agencies responsible for the protection of the Amazon and its indigenous residents, IBAMA and FUNAI. Additionally, Bolsonaro's pro-agribusiness campaign has emboldened both private land owners and illegal land grabbers (grileiros) residing in the Amazon to claim and deforest land, especially that which lies at or past the borders of indigenous lands. [6]

Focus Regions Fire Count (2001–2019)

We narrowed down the thousands of indigenous territories located within the countries of the Brazillian Amazon to ten specific regions. These regions demonstrate the highest cumulative fire counts over the past two decades from 2000 to September 2019.

Indigenous Region Fire Count (2001–2019)

We further condensed the data down to three focus regions — these three territories presented relatively greater fire count in comparison to other indigenous lands. We wanted to investigate the historical and political context of these lands to identify potential causative factors. Size of the land did not appear to be a relatively indicative factor.
This story examines some patterns in our three focus regions.

Map Legend

Fire event
Fire event (highlighted year)
Boundary of indigenous land
Amazon rainforest boundary

Focus region
Parque do Araguaia

Parque Estadual do Araguaia (English: The Araguaia State Park) is a highly biodiverse state park located in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil. It protects an area of the annually flooded, tropical savanna ecoregion known as the Cerrado.

On 27 June 2011 the state government published a law authorizing an "exchange" with the Fundação Nacional do Índio (Funai) that would bring the Xavante people of the Maraiwatsede Indigenous Territory (TI) into the park, and regularize ownership by squatters in the TI. Funai responded that it had no interest in the exchange, which was unconstitutional since indigenous territory is inalienable. [7]


Hover over each year in the line chart to highlight where fires happened in that year.

Focus region

Marãiwatséde is a traditional territory located in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil. It was recognized as land belonging to the Xavante people of the southern Amazon in 1998, but continued to be illegally invaded by external parties. The name of the region means "high forest" or "dangerous forest" in the native language of the Xavante. [8] Xavante title to the Marãiwatséde territory was recognized in an act signed by the Brazilian president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in 1998. However, less than 10 percent of the territory is occupied by the Indian tribe and 85 percent of the land has been deforested or degraded[8]


Hover over each year in the line chart to highlight where fires happened in that year.

Focus region

Araribóia is an indigenous territory sizing at 1,600 square miles. The vast, humid region is located in northeast Brazil in the Maranhao state. It is home to Guajajara and Awá tribes. The Awá people belong to one of the rare uncontacted tribes of the world making them highly vulnerable to deforestation, fires and encroachment efforts. [9]


Hover over each year in the line chart to highlight where fires happened in that year.

Brazil's environmental policies affect the future of the Amazon

The Amazon's ecosystem still suffers from environmental policy dating back to the sixties.

Although the Amazon had been the site of the rubber tapping industry for decades prior, mass deforestation for the settlement and development of the Amazon only began after the relocation of the Brazilian capital in 1960. Mass migration, infrastructural development, and agricultural expansion into the forest accelerates for the next several decades, facilitated by the construction of the Brasília-Belém and Trans-Amazonian Highways as well as government-sponsored settlement programs. [10]

In 1988, the Brazilian government began to take a stronger stance on environmental preservation in its new (and current) constitution. In addition to implementing a new framework for environmental policy, the new constitution institutes explicit measures to preserve indigenous land rights, legalizing the process for demarcating indigenous lands. [11]

In the 20th century, the problem of deforestation in the Amazon lies at the nexus of the conflicting agendas of indigenous communities, private land owners (cattle ranchers, farmers), the Brazilian government, and international powers. The rise of current right-wing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro threatens to tip the scales heavily in favor of accelerated development of the Amazon rainforest, primarily at the violent expense of the indigenous people living within.



1. Calma, Justine. “Everything You Need to Know about the Fires in the Amazon.” The Verge, 28 Aug. 2019,< https://www.theverge.com/2019/8/28/20836891/amazon-fires-brazil-bolsonaro-rainforest-deforestation-analysis-effects.

2. “Amazon Infrastructure Puts 68% of Indigenous Lands / Protected Areas at Risk: Report.” Mongabay Environmental News, 28 June 2019, https://news.mongabay.com/2019/06/amazon-infrastructure-puts-68-of-indigenous-lands-protected-areas-at-risk-report/.

3. “55 Percent of Carbon in Amazonian Indigenous Territories and Protected Lands May Be at Risk.” ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/12/141202144829.htm.

4. New Analysis Says Indigenous Peoples Living in Intact Forests Are Key to Climate Fight Newsroom. https://newsroom.wcs.org/News-Releases/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/11596/New-Analysis-Says-Indigenous-Peoples-Living-in-Intact-Forests-Are-Key-to-Climate-Fight.aspx.

5. Sims, Shannon. “The Land Battle Behind the Fires in the Amazon.” The Atlantic, 27 Aug. 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/08/amazon-fires-indigenous-lands/596908/.

6. Cowie, Sam. “Jair Bolsonaro Praised the Genocide of Indigenous People. Now He’s Emboldening Attackers of Brazil’s Amazonian Communities.” The Intercept, 16 Feb. 2019, https://theintercept.com/2019/02/16/brazil-bolsonaro-indigenous-land/..

7. “Araguaia State Park" Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Araguaia_State_Park#History

8. “Brazil’s Xavante People Struggle for Their Territory – Maraiwatsede.” IndianCountryToday.Com, https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/archive/brazil-s-xavante-people-struggle-for-their-territory-maraiwatsede-X8x0Q3Kkxkijia9OhWXmOQ/.

9. "Giving a platform to the tribal guardians of the natural world” Survival International, https://www.survivalinternational.org/articles/3425-giving-a-platform-to-the-tribal-guardians-of-the-natural-world.

10. "Deforestation in the Amazon: A CFR InfoGuide Presentation,” Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/interactives/amazon-deforestation/#/en/section5.

11. "Indigenous Rights in Brazil: Stagnation to Political Impasse,” The South and Meso American Indian Rights Center, https://saiic.nativeweb.org/brazil.html.

Data Sources

Point data on fires was gathered from the NASA FIRMS project, we used data from MODIS M6, selected from 2000-2010 within the national boundaries of Brazil. Geography for indigenous lands of Brazil is from Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI) and indexed by the Global Forest Watch.


We joined data from NASA FIRMS (MODIS M6) with the FUNAI recognized indigenous land data from Global Forest Watch using QGIS. All data was converted to Geopackage and transformed to EPSG:4674 before executing a spaital join operation. We used Tidyverse R to group, summarize, and export summary tables for areas, using Tableau to conduct EDA. Our visualizations were designed with Vega-Lite.


This data story was created by Ri Le, Emma Lu, Nishat Chowdhury, and Anavi Lohia for the course Introduction to Data Visualization during 2019 Fall taught by Professor Agnes Chang at Columbia University.