Indigenous populations in the Brazilian Amazon struggle to survive COVID-19

The one million Indigenous people who call the Amazon Rainforest home are currently facing growing threats to their survival as COVID-19 ravages their communities at a distressing pace. 

At a 5.2% coronavirus death rate, Brazil has the second highest number of coronavirus-related deaths in the world, after only the United States. The coronavirus death rate among Brazil’s Indigenous populations, however, stands at 9.1% — almost double the national average.

Many of the 400 different tribes in the Amazon number under 1,000 people, and some even number under 100. A coronavirus outbreak within one of these smaller communities could mean extinction. While larger tribes may not face the same threat of extinction, they are not immune to devastating cultural losses, either. Indigenous elders, who are repertoires of certain tribes’ histories, are the most susceptible to contracting and and most vulnerable from dying from the coronavirus.

Though indigenous tribes have tried their best to isolate themselves since the start of the pandemic, thousands of illegal miners, timber poachers, and squatters encroaching on Indigenous land have rendered these efforts unsuccessful. These outsiders bring foreign pathogens, including the coronavirus, into the Amazon and place uncontacted tribes that lack the necessary immunity to combat resulting illnesses particularly at risk.

Even worse, health workers sent by the Federal Indigenous Health Service (SESAI), may have themselves been vectors of coronavirus into the Indigenous communities that they were supposed to serve. Over 1,000 health workers have tested positive, and there are reports that the infection rate among health workers in some offices was higher than the infection rate among Indigenous people in those same areas.

However, though COVID-19 has certainly compounded the suffering of Brazil’s Indigenous populations, the virus is not the main source of current challenges. The unbridled proliferation of the coronavirus in the Amazon is symptomatic of Brazil’s historically inadequate investment in, and increasing animosity towards, Indigenous populations and their wellbeing.

From the outset of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency in 2018, his disdain for Indigenous peoples and his intentions to exploit the Amazon have been made clear. He once stated that, “where there is Indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it.” Under Bolsonaro, rates of deforestation and illegal mining have spiked significantly. He has also cut funding for the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), a federal agency meant to protect Indigenous rights and land.

On July 8, a petition filed by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) and six opposition parties, which contended that the government’s abysmal response to COVID-19 puts Indigenous peoples at “serious risk of genocide,” found some success in Brazil’s Supreme Court. Though the court did not directly address the claims of genocide, it affirmed the government’s responsibility to protect Indigenous populations by ordering Bolsonaro to remove illegal third parties from Indigenous lands and prevent further trespasses.

For Indigenous communities, the ruling is a step in the right direction, but it falls far from measurable justice. The Supreme Court never gave Bolsonaro a time limit on removing these third parties, and he halted removal processes only a day after the decision. Even though Brazil has signed international agreements about respecting the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, and despite the fact that Brazil’s Constitution expressly maintains Indigenous rights, Bolsonaro has persistently refused to comply. Currently, there is a case from 2019 pending against Bolsonaro at the International Criminal Court, but that, too, has stalled.

Without any real mechanisms to hold Bolsonaro and his administration accountable, especially now with the COVID-19 pandemic raging through the Amazon, the future of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples is uncertain at best.

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