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Wed 28 October 2020
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Monica Piccinini investigates the impact of COVID-19 and President Bolsonaro’s policies on the indigenous peoples of Brazil

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Indigenous tribes in the Amazon were already under threat before COVID-19. Brazil elected a president who based his electoral campaign on promises to cut down the Amazon Rainforest, to boost the economy with soya and livestock farming as well as mining. This policy had already threatened and weakened these communities before the pandemic arrived.

Although President Jair Bolsonaro has built his popularity around threatening these communities, this is nothing new as there has been a long history of exploitation and pushing indigenous tribes off their land. 

The history of the indigenous tribes of Brazil has been marked by brutality, slavery, violence, disease and genocide. For more than 500 years, since Europeans arrived in Brazil, indigenous people have faced racism, theft of land, forced integration and genocidal violence.  


A Legacy Of Brutality

One of the worst legacies of this is the Indigenous Reservation of Dourados (RID), created more than 100 years ago by the former Indian Protection Service (SPI), to free up the ancestral lands of the Guarani and Kaiowá for colonisation and to concentrate and make cheap labour available for over-exploitation in the emerging agribusiness. 

It is now one of the largest indigenous communities, with a population of about 18,000 – but has only been allowed 3,500 hectares of poor land. Drinking water, food and basic sanitation is scarce as the land is infertile and difficult to cultivate. The only things in abundance are high rates of violence and suicide.

‘The end of the demarcation of indigenous lands in Brazil’ was a campaign banner of the Bolsonaro Government. Its economic growth plan is based on the export of commodities with ample incentives to transnational agribusiness via the National Development Bank.


The Coronavirus Crisis

Now, COVID-19 is making it so much worse for indigenous peoples.

There are about 305 indigenous tribes in Brazil, totalling approximately 900,000, or 0.4% of the country’s population. Five hundred years ago, their population was more than 11 million in more than a thousand tribes.

Brazil is one of the countries most affected by the pandemic in the world, with the virus circulating more rapidly in areas that are home to some of the most endangered peoples in the world. Even the most remote tribes, that should be safe because of their isolation, face a risk of mass infection.

This has led to the 90-year-old Chief Raoni of Kayapó, Raoni Metktire, to accuse President Bolsonaro of using COVID-19 to intensify his policy of clearing indigenous tribes from their valuable lands.

“President Bolsonaro wants to take advantage and is saying that the Indian has to die, that the Indians have to end,” the Chief has said.

COVID-19 is already reaching even the most remote indigenous tribes. According to the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), which monitors the impact of the pandemic and confirmed cases and deaths among indigenous peoples, 287 indigenous people from 103 ethnic groups had fallen victim to the virus by 16 June and at least 5,484 people are already infected in Brazilian indigenous villages. These numbers are expected to climb dramatically as the virus began in the cities and has only recently reached the more remote areas.

These isolated areas should have been protected from the Coronavirus, but it looks like the Government has done exactly the opposite. Many indigenous leaders – such as those of the Tumucumaque Park Indigenous Land on the remote border with Suriname, which is only accessible by air – believe that the military has brought the virus to their remote lands.

“Certainly, the military took it to the tribes,” said Angela Kaxuyana of the Tiriyó Mission region and a member of the Coordination of Indigenous Organisations in the Brazilian Amazon.

The Sharmans, the tribes’ spiritual healers in the Amazon basin, are doing what they can to control the spread of COVID-19, but the strength of the pandemic is beyond their control. 


Potential Genocide

Experts have start talking about the potential genocide of the indigenous tribes in the Amazon.

“With the arrival of the virus in our community, we will expect a great death toll,” Eliésio Murubo, of the Union of Indigenous Peoples of The Peoples of the Javari Valley, has warned. “The genocide has already been announced in the Javari Valley and from now on we will count the bodies.”

Indigenous people are attempting to fight back. The Guarani and Kaiowá are the second largest indigenous population outside the Amazon, with 50,000 people. They are two distinct ethnic groups and occupy the entire region of the southern cone of Mato Grosso do Sul, central-western Brazil. Both tribes are in a battle for survival.

Their ancestors’ lands were taken from them when the RID was set up, but they are doing everything they can to get them back. Now, their biggest fight is with COVID-19.

The Guarani and Kaiowa see this as part of the struggle that has gone on for centuries since the Portuguese arrived. “Our ancestors said that these diseases were going to happen in the future, due to deforestation, the use of pesticides,” said a young Kaiowá warrior. “The karaí (white people) bring serious illnesses because they attack mother earth.”

But will this struggle against the Government be enough when it and its vested interests are determined to exploit them for commercial gain?

“The Guarani and Kaiowá are creating health barriers, building food sovereignty and protecting themselves through their prayers and traditional medicines with the strength of their autonomy,” said anthropologist Felipe Mattos Johnson.

Johnson works closely with the Guarani and Kaiowá. His worry is that many of the most important indigenous leaders, elders, and are dying of the Coronavirus. Two recent victims were Paulinho Paiakan, who was a leader of the Kayapó people, and  Bep’kororoti Payakan, also from Kayapó, who was one of the most famous fighters for indigenous rights and managed to get them included in the Federal Constitution of 1988.

COVID-19 is in danger of finishing what the Portugese started. Without these leaders – or “living Libraries” as Johnson describes them – the future of the indigenous tribes looks bleak as the twin tragedies of the Coronavirus and Jair Bolsonaro drive them to the edge of extinction and the world stands silently by.


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