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Huge Amazon Wildfires Endanger Our History As Well As Our Air, Archaeologists Say


The destruction of the Amazon rainforest is at a decade high, according to statistics the Brazilian government just released. Tens of thousands of manmade fires burned for much of 2019. And illegal mining and logging have put indigenous communities at risk of displacement and violence.

Archaeologists who study the Amazon are increasingly worried about another loss too - evidence of ancient civilizations.

Cristiana Barreto is a researcher at the Emilio Goeldi Museum in Belem, Brazil, which has one of the largest archaeological collections from the Amazon. She joins us from Belem. Thanks very much for being with us.

CRISTIANA BARRETO: You're welcome.

SIMON: And what archaeological evidence has been uncovered recently?

BARRETO: For our big surprise is that the forest that we all thought was virgin and untouched, it's in fact, a forest that has been managed by indigenous peoples for thousands and thousands of years. We have villages that are really, really, very large. We're talking thousands of people. It was, like, one village after the other. So we estimate that before Europeans arrive we would have between 6 to 10 million people living in the Amazon.

SIMON: That's quite a number.

BARRETO: That's quite a number.

SIMON: And how have these discoveries been put at risk by some of President Bolsonaro scenarios policies in the Amazon?

BARRETO: Well it's been a very sad time because we're first concerned, of course, and the destruction of the forest, but the other problem that we have for the research is the cutting of research funds. And it's very, very difficult to do research. I work at the site in (unintelligible), which is the oldest site in the Amazon. We have the cave, a painted cave, with beautiful petroglyphs and we applied for research that they said that they don't have the money anymore to fund their research. And this is, like, the most important site in the Amazon.

SIMON: President Bolsonaro has said that deforestation in the Amazon is cultural and it's not going to end. What does that mean to you?

BARRETO: So I think that behind this idea that burning forest is cultural, he's trying to get at the Indians to say it's their fault. And this is actually a practice that indigenous people do have to clean areas and doing slash and burning, but they do it in a very sophisticated way with absolute control of the areas they really need to clean up. And they know how to regrow the forest afterwards. So I think that it's one of his narratives that keeps surprising us.

SIMON: Cristiana Barreto is a researcher at the Emilio Goeldi Museum in Belem, Brazil.

Thank you so much for being with us.

BARRETO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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