COVID-19 has ravaged the Afro-descendant quilombo communities throughout the Brazilian Amazon, amplifying the impacts of pollution, encroachment and lack of health care that they have long struggled with.In the Jambuaçu Territory, home to some 700 quilombolas, pollution of waterways from oil palm plantations may leave the communities lacking the clean water that’s essential to keeping infection at bay.Official data on COVID-19 infections and deaths among quilombolas are scant, as are most other statistics on this historically marginalized population group; one estimate suggests the mortality rate may be four times higher than the national average.The quilombolas’ fight for adequate health care and prioritization in Brazil’s vaccination drive is part of a larger struggle for official recognition of their land rights, advocates say. Sonia Castro says her family stayed in self-isolation for two months in the Jambuaçu Territory in Brazil’s Pará state. She recounts how they eventually fell ill, their condition worsening bit by bit without proper medical attention. “[They were] one in each house, and after 30 days there was no way they could stay there any longer,” she says. “That’s when I had to call an ambulance, and they were transferred to Belém,” the state capital. Castro is speaking in front of her wooden house, a solid structure painted forest green with white trim, located in the middle of the community of Ribeira. It’s one of Jambuaçu’s many quilombos, communities of quilombolas, the descendants of African slaves who settled in remote parts of Brazil to flee their oppressors starting in the 1500s. Quilombos are found throughout Brazil, including vast stretches of the Amazon Basin. But even though they often reside in remote, forested portions of the country, the quilombolas of Jambuaçu do not inhabit a bucolic landscape: they are surrounded by mining and processing activities, as well as large agribusiness ventures. The presence of which has been aggravated by the arrival of the novel coronavirus. The other residents of her quilombo feared being infected with COVID-19, Castro says, so she had to fetch her kids sitting and waiting on a bridge on her way out of the community via motorboat — a daunting undertaking meant to prevent interaction with outsiders, but a far cry from the tight-knit nature of a community like Ribeira. An aerial view of the Oxalá de Jacundaí Community, in the Quilombola Territory of Jambuaçu, Pará. Image by Pedrosa Neto “I was desperate, because I thought that I would lose my children and I felt I was being discriminated against from some people because of this, that they didn’t want to have any more contact with me,” Castro says. “It became a kind of discussion, ‘her kids are really sick, they are going to infect other people.'” Her experience is like that of many all over the world who have caught COVID-19, but the disease is particularly troubling in quilombos like Ribeira, part of a network of 15 such quilombos that make up the Jambuaçu Territory. At roughly 400 square kilometers (150 square miles), the territory is the size of the city of Philadelphia, but with a population of 728. While Jambuaçu has been home to quilombolas in some arrangement since at least the late 19th century, the region nevertheless suffers from a lack of government health care provisions, which has proved lethal during the pandemic. There’s a single, small clinic and one ambulance for the entire territory. Face masks and hand sanitizer are in short supply for the residents. The land was once home to floodplain streams known as igarapés, where fisheries thrived, and the kind of forest biodiversity that was a hallmark of the eastern Amazon. For the quilombolas of Jambuaçu, forest and river resources are tied to their livelihoods. And while some of these ecosystems are still healthy and abundant, they’re increasingly under threat. The particular transformation they have experienced includes large-scale commercial activity: slurry pipelines, oil palm plantations, and a series of power lines cutting through hundreds of kilometers of forest and igarapé. All of these pose a range of risks to environmental and human health, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only served to amplify their effects. Elias Silva, a longtime resident from the quilombo of Nossa Senhora das Graças, cites the unique threat posed by one of these commercial entities: a large oil palm firm, Marborges Agroindústria. With a hefty presence in the state of Pará, this multimillion-dollar agribusiness controls almost 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of oil palm plantation, with another 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) for other aspects of its operation. Industrial oil palm cultivation may be most notorious for its deforestation potential, but its role in water pollution has also been highlighted in recent years globally. Moreover, according to authors of a 2013 study, oil palm firms in Pará state make particularly intensive use of chemical products such as fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Given the proximity of Marborges’ plantations to rivers and streams, there is significant potential for contamination of water bodies by such substances. “The igarapés that pass through the Marborges company [site] are the same that reach our territory here,” Silva says. “They release their waste, their poison along the way. We are reached here by water. The water here is our livelihood, where we fish, where we collect drinking water. And these days we are digging wells because the igarapés are contaminated.” Marborges declined to speak with Mongabay after repeated requests for an interview.