Bolsonaro’s Continuous Follies

It seems every day since I last wrote about Amazonia and COVID-19 about three months ago, another Amerindian leader has died from Coronavirus, another knowledgeable elder gone, and more tragedy compiling upon tragedy not only in the Brazilian Amazon but throughout indigenous communities in Lowland South America. By any standard, at least in Brazil, the Brazilian federal government’s neglect of its indigenous peoples and the deleterious effects from the COVID-19 disease, are tantamount to genocide. Many observers, inclusive of anthropologists, journalists, NGOs, and jurists like Deisy Ventura have said as much in regard to investigating those responsible for Amerindian genocide such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his administration.

Today, August 5th, we have learned about the death of the Amerindian leader, Aritana Yawalapiti of the Yawalapiti people, Arawak language speakers of the Upper Xingu Region and Xingu National Park Reserve (Teritório Indígena do Xingu, TIX). Another recent notable death of an indigenous leader succumbing to COVID-19 was Paulo Paiakan of the Kayapó people on June 17th. Paiakan was a loquacious and exuberant leader of the Kayapó and their rights and especially important for influencing the 1988 Brazilian Constitution and inclusion of indigenous rights. Paikan also fought against the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, alongside fellow Kayapó Chief Raoni Metuktire and English musician Sting.

Other significant indigenous deaths were educator and leader, Higino Tenório, of the Tuyuka people of the Alto Rio Negro on June 18th and female leader, Bernaldina José Pedro of the Macuxi people on June 24th, important for her knowledge of Macuxi traditions of legends, songs, and artisanal crafts and for establishing a reserve for her people. In 2018, she briefly met with Pope Francis, giving him a letter, and pleading for his help for the Macuxi.

Another renowned leader was Acelino Dace of the Munduruku people who died on June 3rd. He also played a crucial role in demarcating his people’s territories near the Tapajós River and in the Brazilian government’s abandoning its project of a hydroelectric mega-dam at São Luiz on the Tapajós. Yet, Dace was not alone, 8 other Munduruku elders died within a few days of each other. As Bruna Rocha, archaeologist at Universidade Federal do Oeste do Pará, remarked in an interview with Mongabay, “Every time an elder dies, a library is burnt.” Moreover, Bruna averred: “Besides being knowledge repositories on the environment, history, territory, production of specific artifacts and medicines, these elders provide political and spiritual guidance, being fundamental in the struggle for territorial recognition. They remind their peoples of who they are in a fast-changing world.”

In Colombia, the indigenous actor, Antonio Bolívar, known for his role in the popular movie Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de la Serpiente, 2015), and one of the last Ocaina Indians, succumbed to COVID-19. In the film, he portrayed an Indian in contact with a white botanist, inspired from the real-life diaries of Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes and German explorer, Theodor Koch-Grünberg. Historically, the Ocaina people were enslaved, tortured, and killed by British rubber companies in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries during the Amazonian rubber boom. Yet, Bolívar was a true indigenous elder and according to those who knew him, he had profound botanical knowledge of Amazonian flora. Currently, in Colombia there are 345,714 Coronavirus cases and about 11,624 deaths from the disease.

The Coronavirus has adversely affected indigenous peoples everywhere in Brazilian Amazonia, and worries are the disease will take many, many more Native peoples before a vaccine is introduced. Especially vulnerable are the Yanomami of northern Brazilian and southern Venezuelan borderlands and the Matis of the remote Vale do Javari of western Amazonas State and those indigenous groups with very few remaining members. Not to mention there are the most defenseless from such illnesses as those “uncontacted Amerindians” living in the remotest regions of Amazonia, perhaps numbering less than 1,500 Indigenes altogether.

Moreover, Brazilian Indians face incursions on their land from illegal loggers, illegal miners, and poachers who likewise bring with them the possibility of carrying COVID-19. While the Brazilian government does nothing to aid the Indians in their fight against such invaders. While at the same time, cattle ranchers are mostly responsible for a rise in Amazonian forest fires, up 25% from the same time last year.

Is it any wonder the Brazilian government has failed to act on behalf of its indigenous peoples when President Jair Bolsonaro has consistently denied the severity of COVID-19 in Brazil and cavalierly flaunted not wearing a mask in public? In fact, a Brazilian federal judge ruled near the end of June, if President Bolsonaro did not wear a mask in public he faced being fined for his negligence. So, it was no surprise to anyone when Bolsonaro himself tested positive for Coronavirus about a month ago.

According to Worldometer, Brazil is only second to the United States with COVID-19 cases across the globe at almost 3 million infected and with approximately ninety-seven thousand deaths from the pandemic. With Bolsonaro’s overall unconcern for his own population, and even his own health, it is hardly surprising why the Brazilian president does not care for Brazil’s indigenous peoples?

In fact, President Jair Bolsonaro has gone out of his way to deny Brazilian Natives help. On July 8th, Bolsonaro vetoed an aid package for Brazilian Indians to protect their communities from COVID-19. The anticipated legislation was an emergency plan to provide funding for Brazilian Amerindians to combat the Coronavirus with clean water, disinfectant, protective equipment, hygienic items, and supplemental hospital beds. Additionally, he denied financial support for emergency healthcare of Brazilian Indians.

According to SESAI (Secretaria Especial de Saúde Indígena, Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health) there are currently 16,840 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Brazilian indigenous peoples and about 338 confirmed deaths of Brazilian Indians. Yet, the non-governmental organization, Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB, Articulation of Brazilian Indigenous Peoples), estimates there are 22,656 confirmed Coronavirus cases among Brazilian Indians with 639 deaths and 148 indigenous ethnic-groups infected out of 305 total Brazilian Native groups. While there is an estimated total of 896,917 indigenous people in Brazil.

The Coronavirus is ravaging indigenous communities across Brazil. As elsewhere, the elderly have been most adversely affected by the pandemic. In the city of Manaus, centrally located in the Brazilian Amazon with more than 2.2 million people, in April the number of people dying increased by 443% than the average for deaths over the last few years and its hospital system completely collapsed. Now Intensive Care Unit (ICU) admittance has somewhat leveled off to half capacity. Manaus has approximately 27,122 Coronavirus cases with about 1,770 deaths and according to reports Amazonas State had the third highest rate of COVID-19 cases with 1,686 cases per 100,000 inhabitants by the end of June.

In the Peruvian Amazonian city of Iquitos, there have been about 12,000 cases and 555 deaths, and by June residents were desperate to buy oxygen cannisters in order to give them to family members because hospitals were beyond capacity. People are despondent and are raising money among communities to afford prices for oxygen cylinders since hospitals are overwhelmed and unable to treat the number of patients with Coronavirus. Presently, Peru has the third most cases of COVID-19 after Brazil and Mexico with approximately 447,624 infected and 20,228 deaths.

Still, many would argue because of the Brazilian President’s overall negative, if not racist, attitude toward Brazil’s indigenous peoples and his policies of trying to strip FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio, National Indian Foundation) of its powers; allowing for invaders like illegal loggers and illegal goldminers on indigenous reserves; allowing murders of indigenous people with impunity; not fining ranchers for forest fires; agreeing to development schemes in the Amazon; and his overall deniability about the seriousness of COVID-19, the situation in Brazil is much worse than elsewhere in Amazonia.

When Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes (Supremo Tribunal Federal, STF) declared the actions of President Bolsonaro were tantamount to genocide, this formalized the debate against the executive branch in humanitarian law. Mendes in a videoconference stated that, “‘The Brazilian Army associated itself with a ‘genocide’, it’s not reasonable. We need to put an end to this,’ referring to the administration’s policies in combating the new Coronavirus pandemic” according to the Brazilian online news site Bolsonaro likewise was against a Supreme Court decision which allowed Brazilian municipalities and states the autonomy to decide for themselves measures for social distancing and dealing with Coronavirus without interference from the federal government in accordance with the Brazilian Constitution.

Magistrate Gilmar Mendes later clarified his statements by saying that Brazil may be committing genocide against its indigenous people, “Understand and this is the debate” (Então é este o debate) and citing the renowned Brazilian photographer, Sabastião Salgado’s open letter to President Bolsonaro on June 24th.

Hence, Professor of International Law, Deisy de Freitas Lima Ventura, at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP), believes there is sufficient evidence to investigate President Bolsonaro and his administration for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague as well as within the Brazilian judicial system.

In an interview with the Spanish newspaper, El País, Professor Ventura qualifies what she means by genocide happening in Brazil: “First, I must say that, in regard to the population in general, I believe that the crime of extermination exists: article seven, letter B, of the Rome Statute. It is also a crime against humanity. And, in the specific case of indigenous peoples, I believe that it can be characterized as genocide, the most serious of crimes against humanity. The crime of extermination is the intentional imposition of living conditions that can cause the destruction of part of a population. What is striking, in this case, is that the example used in the text of the Rome Statute is precisely that of deprivation of access to food or medicine. Since the start of the pandemic, the federal government has assumed the behavior that it still has today: on the one hand, the denial regarding the disease and, on the other, an objective action against local governments that try to give an effective response to the disease, against those trying to control the spread and progression of COVID-19. And, from the beginning, I have said that this policy is one of extermination. Why? Because studies show us that the most affected populations are the black populations, the poorest, the most vulnerable, among which are the elderly and people with comorbidities. And, unfortunately, what we had predicted has happened. Despite the underreporting—which is consensual, since everyone agrees that there are more cases in Brazil than are recognized—the volume is impressive and there is a very clear profile of the people who are most affected by the disease. Both in the genocide of the indigenous population and in what, in my opinion, is an extermination policy regarding action in the face of the pandemic, I clearly see an intention…Regarding indigenous people, two issues are especially relevant, among many…The first is the debate on contact with isolated peoples. Ordinance 419 of the National Indian Foundation [FUNAI] determines that contact with isolated communities must be avoided…In February of this year, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples, upon learning that an evangelical leader could lead the coordination of isolated peoples of the National Indian Foundation [FUNAI], warned of potential genocide. Therefore, genocide is far from trivial. We are talking about a United Nations rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. The second point—and it is even difficult to speak about it calmly—is the law of the emergency plan to combat COVID-19 in indigenous territories.”

As mentioned above, President Bolsonaro vetoed the legislative emergency plan to stem the spread of Coronvirus on indigenous reserves, which prevented the Brazilian government from distributing essential supplies of food and medicine and hygienic products to Brazilian Indians. The Spanish journalist, Eliane Brum, then asks Professor Ventura the question, “With respect to indigenous peoples, what other elements demonstrate that there has been a genocidal crime committed against them?” and Ventura responds by asserting: “The essential difference, which makes it easier to identify genocide in indigenous populations, is the clear interest that exists in using their lands, natural resources, in eliminating the ‘obstacle’ that these figures represent, since they are the great guardians of the jungle, the environment, the Brazilian natural heritage. Eliminating these guardians would greatly facilitate the appropriation of their land, just look at the rate at which protected land is deforested and illegally occupied in Brazil. The motive for the crime is obvious. The age-old mystery movie question, who benefits from crime? Has a very obvious answer in this case.”

Furthermore, others have observed similar irresponsibility by the Brazilian government. In an open-letter to President Bolsonaro and his administration, SALSA (Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America), wrote on June 15th describing how the Bolsonaro administration was failing Brazilian Indians and why the executive branch’s actions have amounted to genocide. The letter states: “Brazil’s failure to protect and ensure the health and safety of its Indigenous populations—including inhabitants in remote areas of the Amazon as well as those who live in impoverished regions, such as the Northeast and also urban areas, where poverty makes Indigenous peoples particularly vulnerable—is irresponsible and grossly negligent. The current procedures and protocols outlined in SESAI (Special Indian Health Service of the Ministry of Health) COVID- 19 Contingency Plans do not conform to WHO Guidelines and Recommendations and furthermore violate the 1988 Constitution, ILO Convention 169, and the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to which Brazil is signatory. Brazil’s current policies concerning the health and protection of its Indigenous citizens are translating into nothing less than genocide… According to APIB [Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil, Articulation of Brazilian Indigenous Peoples], the incidence of Indigenous COVID-19 mortality is more than twice that of the national population. The state’s negligence, its inability and unwillingness to protect the health and safety of the nation’s Indigenous Peoples, has led to the high rate of infection and mortality among Brazil’s Indigenous population. The state itself should acknowledge that this is unacceptable.”

In sum, the prevailing question is whether or not President Bolsonaro and his administration will modify their relationship with Brazil’s indigenous population and take active measures to protect Brazilian Indians?

One indigenous leader, Álvaro Fernandes Sampaio Tukano, who is 67 years old of the Tukano people, and General Chief of the Terra Indígena Balaio, from the Municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, of the Alto Rio Negro in the State of Amazonas, explains his view of the COVID-19 crisis on August 4th: “We are tired of living in this world of injustice and here comes more government politicians and more Coronavirus. Because we don’t have a job, we don’t have a good education, we are not trained, we have no minimum conditions to face any pandemic. Even so, thanks to traditional knowledge, prayers and shamanism, many of our elders have helped us treat everyone’s health. So, most of the Indians who caught Coronavirus in the villages survived, escaped death by taking medicine from the forest, doing their shamanism and we continue to defend those territories that the world needs…Those indigenous people who went to be treated in non-indigenous hospitals died. They died because they did not believe in our medicines, in the way we treat, they lost their traditions and when there is this loss of traditions, we are very dependent on the system and this system is expensive for the treatment of our health. This is how we think and we are making this observation for our children, to maintain this ancient knowledge and to live in a dignified way in our territories, to maintain traditions. It is clear that this knowledge is not recognized in the official information. Many people die, we are not being visible and this data does not enter official government data. But the absolute majority, who had coronavirus escaped, thanks to the traditional medicines of the indigenous peoples.”

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).