Brazil is failing their indigenous population.
Illustration Credit: Molly Tong

Communities across the world have been affected by COVID-19, yet many do not consider the impact of coronavirus upon indigenous groups in the Amazon due to their isolation. Poor governance and illegal activity in the Amazon have meant that this is not the case. Figures by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APBIB) show that coronavirus deaths in indigenous communities have risen from 46 on the 1 May to 262 on the 9 June. The Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has failed the 900,000 indigenous people in the country with the government’s catastrophic response to the virus, and their disregard for indigenous communities has left these groups extremely vulnerable. 

One of the best-known indigenous chiefs in the Amazon, Paulinho Paiakan, recently died of coronavirus. This is a stark reminder of how this disease can affect even the most disconnected communities. Paiakan helped lead the campaign to create large indigenous reserves in the Amazon and fought to remove illegal miners and loggers from indigenous areas. His death symbolises the severe impact of the virus upon indigenous communities. According to CNN, the mortality rate among indigenous people is 12.6% compared to 6.4% among the general Brazilian population. As of 18 June, more than 280 people have died with coronavirus across Brazil’s Amazon region and Pará, home to a large proportion of indigenous people is one of the hardest hit states in the country. 

Gert-Peter Burch, founder of the environmental group Planet Amazon, told the AFP News Agency: “He [Paiakan] worked all his life to build worldwide alliances around indigenous peoples to save the Amazon….He was far ahead of his time. We’ve lost an extremely valuable guide.” 

Many have watched the Brazilian government’s response to coronavirus in disbelief. Their mixed messages to the Brazilian public, with Bolsonaro even suggesting citizens should ignore the lockdown, have meant that the country has suffered one of the worst death tolls across the world. As of 19th June, Brazil has had over 47,000 deaths, the second highest death toll in the world. Sonia Guajajara, executive coordinator of APBIB told National Geographic that the government has encouraged indigenous people to come to the country’s cities to receive stimulus payments. However, it is important to keep indigenous people isolated and away from highly populated areas of Brazil to keep them away from any infected persons. 

Bolsonaro’s disregard for indigenous communities began long before the pandemic. His far-right party came into power in 2018 and has proposed to legalise mining inside indigenous areas in the Amazon. Bolsonaro is a controversial figure who has praised the former dictatorship prior to his election and has made offensive comments about indigenous people in Brazil. Speaking to Campo Grande News in 2015, he stated: “Os índios não falam nossa língua, não têm dinheiro, não têm cultura.

“São povos nativos. Como eles conseguem ter 13% do território nacional” **

Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry warned of a “risk of genocide” on 8th April due to allegations that Brazil’s Indigenous Affairs agency, also known as FUNAI, has not done enough to protect these communities from COVID-19 contagion. Government health workers that should be protecting native communities are said to have contaminated indigenous areas with coronavirus. By Bolsonaro not stepping up and protecting indigenous communities during the pandemic, he has seemingly confirmed his view that the rights of indigenous communities are less important than other citizens. 

Indirect implications of coronavirus have also created more problems and risks for indigenous people in Brazil. Restrictions have relaxed on land protected for indigenous communities in the Amazon due to lack of enforcement by the government. Illegal mineral prospectors on protected land have aided the spread of the disease to otherwise isolated communities. This may not be the direct fault of the government, but by doing nothing, Bolsonaro’s team have made a clear choice to ignore the rights of indigenous people and risk their safety in the process. 

The Yanomami Indigenous Territory in Roraima has struggled with illegal gold prospectors in the past. Yanomami leaders now fear that an ongoing surge of prospectors in the region could bring COVID-19 into the region. According to National Geographic, Yanomami tribal leaders estimate that there are around 55 cases of coronavirus in the area. Had the government imposed tighter restrictions on illegal activity, this region could have emerged from the pandemic unscathed. Dario Kopenawa, vice president of the Hutukara Yanomami Association spoke to National Geographic and stated: “The miners are going to kill the Yanomami by contamination.”

Hutukara has joined with national and international cultural rights groups to launch the Miners Out Covid Out campaign with aims to evict the 20 thousand miners who are prospecting for gold illegally in the Yanomami Territory. Concerningly, the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and the São Paulo-based thinktank ‘Instituto Socioambiental’ have found that those living near the gold strikes are at a 40% increased risk of contracting coronavirus. The Miners Out Covid Out website proclaims: “Today, we’re once more at risk from the Xawara (epidemic) brought in by non-indigenous people which you call Coronavirus.

“Our communities are far from the cities and are already suffering from an increase in cases of malaria, and there is not enough health care to look after our family members who are sick.

“We do not want this situation to become even worse with the arrival of Coronavirus.”

Deforestation and illegal activity in the Amazon have always caused problems for native communities as they have lost resources and workers have brought diseases to the region. Deforestation rates are up 60% in the last year according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. According to CNN, more than 156 square miles of rainforest was destroyed in April this year. 

At the start of June, the federal attorney general office’s released a report that showed budget cuts at FUNAI, the agency that defends indigenous lands in Brazil, meant that there have been more opportunities for illegal activities to occur in areas inhabited by indigenous populations.  Rights group Survival International criticised the government for allowing illegal miners to destroy indigenous communities. Speaking to Al Jazeera, they added: “Countless tribal lands are being invaded, with the backing of a government which wants to completely destroy the country’s first peoples and make no attempt to hide it.”

Countries across the world have struggled to produce accurate data in terms of coronavirus deaths. Brazil is no different and there are discrepancies when it comes to recording COVID-19 deaths of indigenous people. Brazil’s federal indigenous health service known as SESAI only tracks deaths from demarcated indigenous territories. SESAI have recorded 85 indigenous deaths as a result of coronavirus up until 9 June. The National Committee of Indigenous Life and Memory estimates the actual number is three times more than what SESAI reported. The government is not only failing the indigenous population by the deaths of those in isolated communities from COVID-19 but are censoring the figures which show how much damage has been done in these areas. 

Along with poor recording of indigenous deaths from the virus, Brazil’s government stopped publishing data about the virus at the start of June. This decision has since been reversed after Bolsonaro was accused of trying to manipulate the numbers. Brazil is one of the worst hit countries in the world from coronavirus. Bolsonaro described the virus as a “little flu” at first and put out many mixed messages to the Brazilian public in terms of following lockdown. He has not followed WHO advice and two health ministers have resigned over his handling of the virus.

Globalisation is a key reason why coronavirus was able to spread so quickly. Without air travel, international trade and modern technology, a disease that started in China may never have reached the most isolated communities in the Amazon. It is wholly unfair that decisions taken by the Brazilian government have left these indigenous communities, who never conformed to globalisation and capitalism, at high risk of contracting this virus.

 Indigenous communities have always been incredibly vulnerable to diseases brought in by ‘intruders’ as they lack immunological defences to viruses such as the common cold. Bolsonaro made a reckless and irresponsible choice when he did not bring in much stricter measures to protect these communities from COVID-19. If the virus were to spread throughout the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory, an area hosting the largest number of isolated communities, it has the power to wipe out many indigenous groups. Brazil had the opportunity to step up and effectively protect their indigenous people, but instead have created even more danger for them. 

Notes: **“The Indians do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture. They are native peoples, how did they manage to get 13% of the national territory?”