On April 9, a 15-year-old boy from the Yanomami tribe in the Brazilian Amazon died of COVID-19. The Yanomami are the largest relatively isolated tribe in South America and have a population of around 38,000. Their territories in the Brazilian Amazon and the Alto Orinoco–Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve in Venezuela form the largest forested indigenous territories in the world. The boy was the third indigenous person to die in Brazil from COVID-19, according to the Association of the Indigenous People of Brazil (APIB). There is now a growing fear that COVID-19 will completely devastate indigenous communities in Brazil and across the world if adequate measures are not taken.
Indigenous communities are at disproportionate risk during public health emergencies, making them even more vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic than the larger population. The lack of access to adequate health and social services, as well as sanitation such as clean water and soap, makes them more susceptible to communicable and non-communicable diseases. Even when indigenous peoples do have access to adequate healthcare they often face discrimination which prevents them from being properly treated. Respiratory illnesses, like those that develop from the influenza virus, are already the leading cause of death among indigenous peoples.
The Yanomami themselves are no strangers to the threat of infectious disease. In the 1940s, the Yanomami first came into sustained contact with outsiders when the Brazilian government sent in teams to mark the border with Venezuela. Shortly afterwards, the Indian Protection Service (Serviço de Proteção aos Índios or SPI) and missionary groups moved in. This influx led to the first measles and flu epidemics in which 9% of the Yanomami community living near the border with Venezuela were killed.
In the 1970s the government built a road through the Amazon, bulldozing much of the Opiktheri community. The builders brought diseases which wiped out two villages. In the 1980s, 40,000 Brazilian gold-miners invaded their land, killing many Yanomami and exposing them to more diseases to which they had no immunity. 20% of the Yanomami died in seven years.
Today, thousands of gold-miners, ranchers and loggers are invading indigenous territory in Brazil. In addition to the Yanomami, these tribes include the Kawahiva, the Uru Eu Wau Wau, the Munduruku and the Awá. This illegal invasion not only pollutes the rivers, fish, and forests with mercury, but makes them increasingly vulnerable to diseases like malaria, measles – and now the coronavirus.
Many indigenous communities are using traditional knowledge and practices such as voluntary isolation, and sealing off their territories, to try and stop the spread of COVID-19. However, they can do little to stop the illegal loggers, miners, hunters and evangelical missionaries still invading their territories and transmitting disease.
The Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA) said in a statement that “without a doubt, the main vector for the spread of COVID-19 inside the Yanomami Indigenous Territory is the more than 20,000 illegal miners that go in and out of the territory without any control. […] The Yanomami, as many other indigenous people, are among the groups most vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19 and should be urgently protected, under the risk of genocide with the complicity of the Brazilian State.”
The Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Anne Nuorgam, urged member states and the international community to “include the specific needs and priorities of indigenous peoples in addressing the global outbreak of COVID 19”. Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, however, has actively encouraged missionaries to make contact with previously uncontacted Amazonian tribes, as well as promoting the illegal mining and logging of indigenous territories. He has also stripped the Indigenous Affairs Agency (FUNAI) of the responsibility to identify and demarcate indigenous lands and made cuts to FUNAI and indigenous healthcare.
Survival International’s Uncontacted Tribes campaigner Sarah Shenker said: “If their lands are properly protected from outsiders, uncontacted tribes should be relatively safe from the coronavirus pandemic. But many of their territories are being invaded and stolen for logging, mining and agribusiness, with the encouragement of President Bolsonaro, who has virtually declared war on Brazil’s indigenous peoples. Where invaders are present, coronavirus could wipe out whole peoples. It’s a matter of life and death…”
Recently, in a landmark ruling, a Brazilian judge blocked evangelical missionaries from making contact with uncontacted tribes in the Javari Valley. The lawsuit was brought by, UNIVAJA, the indigenous organization of the Javari Valley. UNIVAJA has previously said: “If COVID-19 arrives in our villages, the consequences could be genocidal. And despite the dangers for the indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley, FUNAI [Indigenous Affairs Agency] and SESAI [Indian Health Agency] have done very little”.
Another potential threat to the indigenous Amazonian communities is their increasing reliance on external means for food. The expansion of certain government programmes in Brazil has meant that some communities have stopped hunting and growing their own food and now rely solely on pensions and governmental cash-transfer programmes. Thousands of community members travel to nearby cities to access these programmes and to buy food from markets. Now, many indigenous organisations are asking communities to stop travel to the cities to prevent them from contracting the virus and bringing it back onto the territories. Marivelton Baré, President of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Rio Negro (FOIRN), told the BBC that the government has not any offered any help and added that “If the choice is either being infected or going hungry, most will choose the first. Then the consequences will be dire.” FUNAI have not said how they will combat hunger among indigenous communities.
The UN has stressed the importance of states taking into account “indigenous peoples’ distinctive concepts of health, including their traditional medicine” when taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the communities and respecting the informed consent of indigenous people when developing these measures. It has also emphasised the importance of ensuring services and information are provided in indigenous languages, as currently relevant information about infection diseases and preventive measures is not available in these languages.
It is clear that unless the Brazilian government takes steps to protect indigenous territories from being invaded and ensures that indigenous peoples have access to adequate healthcare and food supplies, many communities will struggle and might be completely wiped out during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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