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Brazil’s indigenous hit especially hard by COVID-19: why so vulnerable?

  • At least 78 indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon are infected by COVID-19, with 3,662 individuals testing positive and 249 dead among 45 of those peoples. Detailed data is lacking for the other 33 peoples. Experts say poverty, poor resistance to Western diseases, and lack of medical facilities may explain high vulnerability.
  • The Coordination of Indigenous Organizations in the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), which gathered and tallied this data, expects cases and deaths are underreported. Many leaders and elders continue dying among indigenous people, including elders of the Munduruku, Kayapó, Arara, Macuxi, and Tuyuka peoples.
  • COVID-19 has now penetrated the Xingu river basin, a vast area south of the Amazon River in Pará and Mato Grosso states. The Arara people there were devastated by disease and violence in the 1980s. Now, of 121 remaining Arara, almost half have tested positive for the coronavirus.
  • Of the 1,818 Xicrin in southwest Pará state, 270 (15%) have tested positive, with seven deaths. Analysts speculate this high infection and death rate (higher than Brazil’s general populace, and even many other indigenous groups), may be due to poor underlying health due to water allegedly polluted by a Vale nickel mine.

The Coronavirus continues its deadly spread across Brazil with 1.1 million cases confirmed and 52,725 deaths, as of 24 June. The country has become the second nation, after the U.S., to register more than 50,000 deaths, even as leadership underplays the mounting crisis.

As anticipated, indigenous communities are showing particular vulnerability, though the pandemic’s full impact isn’t yet clear in remote Amazonia. The Coordination of Indigenous Organizations in the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), says it has reliable information that the virus has infected 78 indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon and that among 45 of these indigenous peoples, 3,662 individuals have been infected and 249 have died. COIAB doesn’t have trustworthy data for the remaining 33 peoples, it says.

COIAB fears too, that due to underreporting, the overall toll is far higher than these figures suggest.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and José Carlos Ferreira, a leader of the Arara people. Image courtesy o Globo.

Indigenous leaders fall at high rate to pandemic

As Mongabay reported on 9 June, a disproportionate number of indigenous leaders are falling victim to the pandemic (with nine Munduruku elders dead by 7 June). More leaders, among far-flung peoples, have died since.

These losses include Paulo Paiakan, aged 66, from the Kayapó people in southern Pará state. Paiakan played an important role nationally in getting indigenous rights enshrined in the 1988 Constitution, drawn up in the progressive euphoria that swept Brazil when the country returned to civil rule after 25 years of military dictatorship. He also helped bring international attention to the socio-environmental costs of the Belo Monte hydroelectric mega-dam on the Xingu river, built between 2011 and 2016.

Another notable leader lost to COVID-19 is José Carlos Ferreira, aged 41, from the Arara da Volta Grande Indigenous Territory, also in Pará state. Like Paiakan, he was deeply engaged in the campaign to stop the Belo Monte dam, and among the leaders who accompanied celebrity and U.S. politician Arnold Schwarzenegger in a 2011 visit to the region’s communities to discuss the planned dam. The campaign to stop the project failed, with many of the dire consequences indigenous leaders foresaw now becoming reality ­— the dam, plagued by massive corruption, is severely affecting local indigenous and riverine communities, displaced tens of thousands of people, is damaging habitat, destroying Xingu River fisheries, and providing far less energy than promised.

Also dead is Dionito José de Souza Macuxi, aged 52, an influential leader in Roraima state, in Brazil’s far north near the Venezuela border. He played a key role in the long and eventually successful struggle by the Macuxi people to gain full recognition for the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Territory.

A thousand miles away near the border with Peru, Higino Pimental Tenório has succumbed to COVID-19. The Tuyuka leader dedicated the last thirty years of his life to protecting his people’s language and culture, which was being snuffed out by encroaching society.

Dionito José de Souza Macuxi, a leader of the Macuxi people. Image courtesy of ISA.

A pandemic spreads

Critically, the virus has now reached the Xingu river basin, a vast area south of the Amazon River in Pará and Mato Grosso states containing 28 indigenous territories, five of which were among those suffering heaviest deforestation in 2019.

Cases of coronavirus have been reported in many indigenous reserves there, including the iconic Xingu Territory, created in 1961 as the direct result of a campaign run by the pathfinding Villas-Boas brothers who originated what was then considered a radical idea: protecting large areas of rainforest inhabited only by indigenous people.

It is too early to know how many indigenous people have been infected in the Xingu Territory, but Lili Chipaia, executive secretary of the Federation of the Indigenous Peoples of Pará State (FEPIPA), is fearful. She told a local newspaper: “We only started hearing of cases in early May, but we know the numbers are increasing exponentially.”

In mid-June, COIAB and FEPIPA sent an urgent letter to Helder Barbalho, the Pará state governor, asking for emergency measures, including regular provision of food baskets, so indigenous people won’t need to expose themselves to the virus by traveling to neighboring towns to purchase supplies.

Chipaia explained that the bounty of natural forest products — fish, wild fruits, nuts and game animals — that the communities once relied on, are today in short supply. That, she says, is “the result of the large number of illegal mines [on indigenous land], the logging, the incursion of farmers and land grabbing,” which has impacted ecosystems and biodiversity, and increased community reliance on purchased food.

In response, the Secretariat for Public Health in Pará state (SESPA) said that it was already helping indigenous communities, dedicating specific wards for Indians in hospitals in the Pará cities of Belém, Marabá, Santarém and Breves, and sending teams to indigenous villages to carry out tests and provide treatment. FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, says it has distributed nearly 5,000 food baskets to indigenous families in Pará state.

Higino Pimental Tenório, a Tuyuka leader. Image courtesy of ISA.

Risk to recently contacted and uncontacted groups

The Xingu valley includes indigenous people who have been interacting with the outside world for centuries, others contacted only recently, and yet others who remain isolated. Experts are particularly concerned about possible infection among the last two groups — particularly vulnerable because they have not built up resistance to Western diseases, and because they largely lack access to modern medical facilities.

One recently contacted group that runs a serious risk of devastation, and perhaps even extermination, due to the virus is the Arara, living in the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Territory, located on the Iriri River, a Xingu tributary. This group began its first long-lasting contact with the outside world in 1987 when the Transamazon Highway, then being cut across the Amazon basin, reached their land. Many Arara died from conflict and disease stemming from this first, brutal contact. It isn’t known how many Arara existed before the disruption of the road construction, because many fled into the forest. But by 1996 just 48 remained.

Over the last 20 years the Arara have begun to recover, but faced setbacks. Located within the area of influence of the Belo Monte mega-dam, their land has been repeatedly invaded by illegal loggers and land grabbers attracted to the region by the construction. In 2016, the reserve suffered more deforestation from invaders than any other indigenous territory in Brazil. The 121 Arara are ill-prepared for further blows, but now almost half of them have tested positive for the virus. It seems highly probable that more will have been infected by now, given their collective way of living.

An Arara man told Survival International: “We’re very worried. The village is three days away from the city, where the [nearest] hospital is located. We’re asking for protection with these coronavirus cases. The number of invaders has increased a lot, they’re cutting down a lot of timber. The government isn’t stopping them. There are too many invaders in the area.”

Members of the Arara in Pará state, Brazil. Image by Leila Burger / Survival International.

High vulnerability among some groups

Another people reeling under the impact of COVID-19 are the Xicrin, living in the Xicrin do Cateté Indigenous Territory in southwest Pará, about 400 kilometres (250 miles) from the town of Maraba. “There is crying in the indigenous villages day and night,” a young Xicrin told Agência Pública.

“We are very frightened,” added Bekroti Xikrin, president of the institute that represents the five villages within the territory. “Seven people in our family have died” of the virus. He was referring to the entire Xicrin population of 1,818, all regarded as part of his extended family.

So far, about 15% (270) of the Xicrin have tested positive, a number expected to rise. The seven deaths include Bep Karoti, aged 63, leader of Pokro village, widely respected throughout the indigenous territory for his physical strength and spiritual knowledge. The virus has taken the lives of four other elders, all warriors. These Xicrin warriors played a key role in handing down indigenous knowledge to younger generations.

With so many infections and deaths as compared to the group’s total number, the Xicrin appear considerably more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the Brazilian population in general; indeed, even more than other indigenous groups. This may be because their health was already compromised over the long term, with many more cases of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems than among neighboring indigenous peoples.

In a report published in March 2020, João Paulo Botelho Vieira Filho, a Faculty of Medicine lecturer at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) and an expert on the Xicrin, said that their health problems may well stem from the contamination of the Cateté River, which flows through their territory. This stream plays a key role in the Xicrin way of life — they bathe in it, eat fish from it, and cook with its waters. Vieira Filho said that the unacceptably high quantities of heavy metals found in the river water may well be causing the health problems. Indeed, an analysis of the river has shown that it contains excessive levels of lead, iron, copper, nickel and chrome.

The heavy metals are believed by Vieira Filho to largely come from the nearby Mineração Onça Puma nickel mine, established in 2010 and owned by Vale, the multinational mining company headquartered in Brazil. Vale rejects the accusation, saying that independent analysis has proven that their operation cannot be responsible for the pollution, even though Onça Puma operates in nearby hills which are drained by tributaries flowing into the Cateté. The case is in ongoing litigation.

An Arara elder. Image by John Miles / Survival International.

Indigenous people help themselves

Amidst all the gloom, there is some good news. Across Brazil, indigenous people are rising up — organizing self-help groups and taking measures to protect themselves, with many groups isolating themselves deep in the Amazon forest. Centuries of experience with epidemics that were spread by Westerners mean that they know better than anyone how lethal a pandemic can be, and how to fight it.

Earlier this month, Rede Wayuri, a network of indigenous communicators working in 350 Amazon communities distributing information via WhatsAPP and ShareIT, was chosen by Reporters without Borders — an international organization that works to protect freedom of expression and information — as one of 30 global “information heroes.” According to Reporters without Borders, Rede Wayuri is working ceaselessly during the crisis to educate and inform indigenous communities about COVID-19.

Banner image: View of the Iriri River, without people. Some analysts fear that the pandemic could depopulate and destabilize indigenous communities, opening the gates wide to wholesale land theft in the Amazon. Image by Mauricio Torres.

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