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Brazilian Indigenous Peoples Confront Double Threat of COVID-19 and Bolsonaro’s Policies

Photograph Source: Cmacauley – CC BY-SA 3.0

After six days of fighting for his life in an intensive care unit in a Amazonas state hospital, a 15-year-old Yanomami teenage boy died in April 9 from complications caused by the novel coronavirus. The boy’s death sounded the alarm for Brazil’s Indigenous peoples who now face the fear of the virus alongside the stress of increasing criminal activities by land grabbers, illegal loggers, gold diggers, poachers, drug traffickers, hitmen and questionable “guests” like missionaries and tourists in their lands. Add to that the prospect of another potentially devasting dry season like last year’s, which saw more than 82,000 fires destroy precious rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon.

Brazil has 850,000 Indigenous peoples distributed between 300 tribes. Their reservations cover nearly 13% of the country’s territory. Access to hygiene and medical services demands long journeys and the practices of tribes commonly that reside in communal hamlets under huge thatched structures make protocols for prevention such as social distancing difficult.

Andrey Moreira Cardoso, a physician who specialized in epidemiology and Indigenous peoples health from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, stated to the UOL news site: “Limitations on the traditional lands available for the preservation of Indigenous peoples, access to basic sanitation systems and considerations such as the recurring infections, malnutrition, anemia and the emergence of chronic illnesses make Indigenous populations even more susceptible to the current pandemic”. Epidemiologists have long noted that Indigenous peoples have a particular susceptiblility to respiratory diseases.

Experts publishing in the scholarly magazine Science recently documented that the risks of the virus spreading are higher than for populations with more services and closer to well-equipped hospitals. Indigenous leaders warn that the incursions of outsiders could bring disease and death to their peoples. Many Indigenous communities have decided to put chains on the entrances to their lands.

In an interview to Americas Program, Indigenous leader Dinamam Tuxá, a member of the Tuxá People who mostly live in the state of Bahia in the northeast region  and coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), stated that his people have been tracking the death of indigenous peoples, given the underreporting or lack of reporting by the government.

With obvious concern in his voice, he reported that an elderly Borari woman recently died in Pará state, along with a male from the Umura people in Manaus, capital city of the Amazonas state, both in northern Brazil.  Although the Brazilian state most hard-hit by the coronavirus so far is São Paulo in the southeast, where the densely populated capital city of São Paulo is located, that reegion also has some of the most advanced medical facilities in Latin America. In the Northern region, Amazonas is suffering the most and is least prepared to contend with the pandemic.

Bolsonaro’s lax policies on the pandemic, including on frequent occasions denying its seriousness, have faced heavy criticism at home and abroad. On April 16 Bolsonaro fired his Minister of Health Luiz Henrique Mandetta due to Mandetta’s insistence on social distancing and lockdown measures. For Brazilians, particularly Indigenous, traditional and poor people, things took a grim turn as the outside world points to Brazil as among the nations with the worst response to the Covid-19 crisis.

An image making the rounds in the international press shows the “utter disaster” looming in Manaus state, as it fills mass graves with the victims of the pandemic. The internationally renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado published an open letter to President Jair Bolsonaro denouncing the situation titled “We are on the eve of a genocide” and signed by famous artists, celebrities, scientists and intellectuals.

Tuxá believes the Brazilian government is trying to hide the spread of the virus from the Brazilian population, but especially among Indigenous peoples. The Federal Prosecutor Office has demanded information from the new Health Minister Nelson Teich on underreported cases of Covid-19 victims.The “utter disaster” looming in Manaus state as it fills mass graves with the victims of the pandemic.

Government Response Called “Genocidal”

The governmental division responsible for the well-being of Indigenous peoples, Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI-National Indian Foundation), responded to an Americas Program request for information by pointing to its programs to face the pandemic. These include distributing information through its decentralized units made up of 225 Local Technical Coordinators, 39 Regional Coordinators and 11 Stations for Ethnical-Environmental Protection. The Foundation uses word-of-mouth, cell phone and social media messages, mostly in Portuguese, to reach native Brazilians.

Governmental institutions have also been facilitating Indigenous transportation from city to villages, delivering food and health items including masks and gloves, while keeping track of the activities by the Special Indigenous Sanitation Districts and the Special Secretary of Indigenous Health.

FUNAI addresses Indigenous matters through the three branches of political power in Brazil: Executive, Legislative and Judicial System. However, the FUNAI, along with other governmental departments focused on environment and human rights, have been mutilated by deep financial cuts under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro.

Moreover, Bolsonaro has put in charge large-scale farmers and evangelicals, members of the caucus known as the “Bible, beef and bullet” caucus. The political alliance, which now has considerable influence over policies that affects indigenous peoples, also includes representatives of the firearms industry.

“We, the Indigenous peoples, need to confront this situation. We’ve always fought to empower FUNAI, but we saw at the beginning of the pandemic how it changed policy to allow missionaries to come in, especially among those in voluntary isolation who are the most vulnerable. We cannot allow this to happen”,  said Célia Xakriabá Akwē from the Xakriabá tribe in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais. At first, FUNAI attempted to contact isolated Indigenous groups, but after pressure from Indigenous leaders, human rights groups and federal prosecutors, FUNAI on March 23 forbid all contact with isolated Indigenous peoples as they requested for their own protection.

Tuxá and other indigenous leaders indicate that governmental actions will not protect their peoples. In a press release Nara Baré, coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations from Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), stated: “Since Jair Bolsonaro took office, our Indigenous lands are increasingly threatened by predatory economic activities that threaten the integrity of our ancestral territories and the natural resources essential for our survival. With the Covid-19 crisis, the illegal activities of miners, loggers, missionaries, drug traffickers and other invaders pose an even greater threat, because they can bring the virus to our territories and communities. For this reason, we demand that this economic activity in our territories be stopped immediately, thus guaranteeing the protection of all our children, women, men, young people, wise elders, and our relatives in voluntary isolation.”

Tuxá recalled ancient times and compared it to the present crisis. “Today we are experiencing a phenomenon very similar to what happened during the ‘discovery’, in fact, invasion, of Brazil.” He noted that when the Portuguese conquerors arrived, the original peoples didn’t have immunity for the novel diseases they brought with them like smallpox.  After the “Discovery of America”, malaria, measles and influenza struck native peoples, brought by gold miners, settlers and rubber tappers.

In the 20th century  government highway construction brought more fatal diseases. “In a second stage, with the so-called development implanted by the 1960’s dictatorship, they used many instruments such as clothes impregnated with smallpox and many other transmissible diseases through virus. These were introduced in Indigenous territory with the aim of decimating the native people”, Tuxá said.

During the dictatorship (1964-1985) military personal trained by the US government’s CIA targeted indigenous Brazil’s indigenous peoples, carrying out massacres, land grabs, enforced removal from territories. They forced many into prisons, tortured, carried out human hunting games, and spreading infectious diseases. At least 8,300 Indigenous Brazilians were killed during this period.

One of the cruelest acts perpetrated by the army happened when airplanes rained napalm on natives to use their territories to enlarge Brazilian roads. Napalm was used during World War II and the Vietnam war, but the native peoples weren’t armed, nor did they have armies. Bolsonaro is a staunch defender of the Brazilian dictatorship and an espoused admirer of American military methods.

When asked if such a tragic scenario could be repeated, Jonathan Mazower of Survival International responded, “Sadly, it’s definitely possible, and quite likely. There are many tribes with large numbers of outsiders on their land”. He stated that these forces have been empowered by Bolsonaro’s election, increasing their activity since 2019 and accelerating a new phase of Indigenous genocide that the activist noted is rarely portrayed in media.

Indigenous leaders and Human Rights activists believe that the dead Yanomami teenager was exposed to the Coronavirus by illegal miners. “It was probably brought in by illegal miners, of which are 25,000 in Yanomami territory,” stated Christian Poirier, director of the U.S.-based Amazon Watch.  “There are only 26,000 Yanomami people still living within their territory, to give you a sense of scale of the land invasion here and the threat it represents for this people,” he added.

Xakriabá Akwē sees Bolsonaro as the Indigenous peoples’ main enemy and further accuses the state governor, Romeu Zema, a political ally of Bolsonaro, of not recognizing the plight of her people.

“I can say that we are two-time orphans of both the Federal and regional power. Zema, along with seven other (governors) didn’t question Bolsonaro while he was taking part in public rallies during weekends in the midst of the pandemic, openly defying social isolation despite what’s going on, and disobeying the recommendations from World Health Organization”, said Xakriabá Akwē in a phone interview to Americas Program.  She dubbed the president’s actions “a genocidal process putting peoples’ lives at risk”.

“For the Indigenous peoples in Brazil, we need to denounce the government for justifying the extermination of Indigenous lives as casualties of disease. The State is responsible from the moment it fails to establish contingency measures and carry them out, because, for example, there is infrastructure in the city centers but there is no campaign for hospitals focused on Indigenous issues even though 300 Indigenous peoples reside in Brazil, besides the isolated groups. So it’s important that government measures be taken or denounced now because we are marching toward a moment that already took place in history”, Xakriabá Akwē added.

Coloonization in Times of Pandemic

Mazower said that encroachment on Indigenous resources have stepped up since the pandemic hit. “There are many reports from Brazil that loggers, goldminers and others are taking advantage of the lockdown to increase their activities. There was already clear evidence that such illegal activities had been increasing in recent months anyway, as they feel emboldened by President Bolsonaro’s rhetoric. His cuts to FUNAI, the Indigenous Affairs Department, and environmental monitoring teams mean they can increasingly act with impunity”.

He stated that the Brazilian president has an end goal of eliminating Indigenous people and opening up their territories to exploitation by national and international industrial and farming interests. “Those policies were in place before Covid-19, and will almost certainly continue afterwards”.

On Feb. 2 Bolsonaro named the theologist and anthropologist Ricardo Lopes Dias as General Coordinator for Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples at FUNAI. The appointee is a former member of the Brazilian arm of the American evangelical group Ethnos360, called locally New Tribes Mission Brazil. As stated in Ehtnos360 official site: “By unflinching determination we hazard our lives and gamble all for Christ until we have reached the last tribe regardless of where that tribe might be”. The organization states that “of the world’s 6.500 people groups, 2.500 are still unreached. Ethnos360, founded in 1942 as New Tribes Mission, helps local churches train, coordinate and send missionaries to these peoples”.

For Célia Xakriabá Akwē, Lopes Dias represents a continuation of the violent historical processes of colonization and religious conversion.  She notes that the Bible, Beef and Bullet Caucus now wields considerable influence in local, state and national government and warns that they are longtime “enemies of Indigenous peoples as they try to usurp what was left us from the extermination”.

For Tuxá, FUNAI is being completely undermined by the Lopes Dias appointment and through the efforts of others on the inside “without technical knowledge and with ties to evangelical groups pushing forward an evangelization process of Indigenous peoples”.

Asked directly by Americas Program if FUNAI was following a strategy to open up Brazilian Indigenous peoples for evangelization, the institution responded tersely through a press office email: “Within FUNAI there is no plan to evangelize Brazilian Indigenous peoples”. The reply did not address the degree to which the agency would or would not promote outside evangelization.

“Deep Connections”

Recently Indigenous people won an unexpected right to reply to Bolsonaro’s racist claims. In an unprecedented decision, Federal judge Raffaela Cássia de Sousa granted the Kinja indigenous people the right to reply to racist invective, a legal move that experts position as a new chapter in the fight against Bolsonaro’s racist portrayals of  Indigenous peoples.

“Bolsonaro in a very racist discourse says that Indigenous peoples aren’t willing to evolve, but in fact we are cautious of any sort of ’evolution’ coming from an anti-humanitarian government”, Xakriabá Akwē said.

A 2011 study by the World Bank, an institution that has frequently violated indigenous rights, was forced to conclude that Indigenous peoples are the most effective environmental factor in conservation. Now that Bolsonaro has increased pressures to dismantle environmental protection efforts in Brazil under the pretext of the pandemic, the defense of the nation’s indigenous peoples is critical.

“This pandemic has risen in a context very tied to capitalism and the powerful nations’ imposition of economic measures and this disease is closely linked to climate changes”, Tuxá said. “The coronavirus has revealed the very visible fragility of poor and/or authoritarian countries such as Brazil, where authoritarian presidents without technical knowledge try to upset science while dealing with the crisis in their own way”.

Amazon Watch’s Poirier said that Brazil’s Indigenous peoples will be vital in a new scenario as guardians of the environment, with the responsibility of leading the fight against global warming. Indigenous peoples also possess important knowledge that could save lives. “Their traditional knowledge may hold the key to cure this virus and other incoming pandemics through the years”, he said.

Xakriabá Akwē, who holds a Masters in “Sustainability Linked to Peoples and Traditional Lands” from the University of Brasilia, argues for “the transmission of knowledge, and science bred in the womb of the territory”. “There is a deep connection that isn’t taught in schools, but the land has always existed with its wisdom”. In addition to closing off lands to outsiders, indigenous measures to confront the virus include the use of traditional plant medicines and philosophy.

The Indigenous scholar described how native peoples are finding new forms of prevention and psychological healing, with an emphasis on returning to tribal knowledge and inner resources. In Brazil, the month of April is known as “Red  April” to celebrate and honor their heritage of tradition and survival.

“This is Indigenous April, Red April, and to better understand this deep history, remember that before people encountered the Green and Yellow Brazil, Brazil was Red. It started with the brazilwood (Paubrasilia echinata) and its seed, which is red. Today people are rethinking Indigenous identity a lot, and our cultural transformation, which also had and still has to deal with violence”, Xakriabá Akwē said.

For the Xakriabá Akwē leader, “staying home” may be something very difficult for others, but for natives it has always been their struggle: “The right to stay home, to keep our territory. However, every time we fight for this right, we are stripped of our homes and land.”

The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples carried out in-depth consultations with Indigenous healthcare specialists and developed the following urgent action points to help protect indigenous communities from the spread of Covid-19:

1) Coordination between all state and municipal health secretariats and indigenous health agencies in order to guarantee access to information on the epidemiological situation and the actions being carried out in each indigenous territory and village, and among indigenous populations in urban areas;

2) Guarantee that emergency plans for the care of critically ill patients in the states and municipalities include the indigenous population, making explicit plans for transporting indigenous patients and responding to requests for assistance in a timely manner, in conjunction with indigenous health agencies;

3) Coordination among health secretariats, social assistance agencies, and other social policies to enable the isolation and quarantine of indigenous people in transit who are returning to their territories and need to take these preventive measures before their entry, or in the case of suspected infections or confirmed cases of coronavirus within communities;

4) Provision of rapid tests for Covid-19 to all Special Indigenous Sanitary Districts to screen the entry of indigenous people from urban centers who seek to return to their territories. Tests must be prioritized to control entry and exit in indigenous territories to ensure that the virus does not spread widely among this population;

5) Inclusion of indigenous populations as a priority group in speeding up the provision of the annual flu vaccine;

6) Guarantee of stocks and provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) for indigenous healthcare workers, and suspected and confirmed cases and their family members who accompany them;

7) For the duration of this health crisis, ensure the supply of medicines indicated for the groups most at risk of complications from the coronavirus, which in this case includes indigenous peoples, according to protocols from the Ministry of Health;

8) Support Special Indigenous Sanitary Districts (DSEI) for training health professionals to deal with and monitor the coronavirus, since in indigenous territories access to on-line communication is often insufficient or non-existent;

9) Provision of hygiene materials and PPEs for all Indigenous Health Centers for patients, their caretakers, and health professionals;

10) Include indigenous organizations that are members of APIB in planning and emergency meetings in each state to ensure that the specific needs and realities of indigenous peoples are addressed.

For more information and to support efforts:

APIB – Indigenous Peoples Articulation

Official site – http://apib.info/

Donations – http://apib.info/2819-2/

Amazon Watch

Official site – https://amazonwatch.org/

Survival International

Official site – https://www.survivalinternational.org/

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