In Amazonia, libraries are being set alight

The death of elders leads to irreplaceable loss of knowledge in the Amazon. Indigenous lives – and heritage – matter.

Bruna Rocha Rosamaria Loures
21 July 2020
Chief Vicente Saw, killed by covid on June 1, 2020, greeting the then Head Chief of the Munduruku people, next to the now current Head Chief, Arnaldo Kabá, at the General Assembly of the Munduruku people held in his village, Sai Cinza, in early 2013.
Photo: Vinicius Honorato. All rights reserved.

“Be aware that in my country, every time an elder dies, a library is set alight,” said the great Malian intellectual, Amadou Hampaté Bâ in 1962. The statement was in response to an American senator who accused Africans of being “ungrateful, illiterate and ignorant” during a session of UNESCO’s Executive Council.

Hampaté Bâ’s point helps us understand the centrality of the figure of the elder within oral societies, transmitting their knowledge and history through the spoken word. This applies to Amazonian forest peoples – indigenous, forest peasant or maroon descendants – as well as to all other traditional communities and peoples in Brazil who have in their elders sources of knowledge, moral authority, as well as political and spiritual guidance. The elders’ knowledge of their peoples’ history and territory has guaranteed land recognition by the State and informs forest peoples of their roots in a fast-changing world. And not just forest peoples: increasingly, researchers from different areas have consulted these specialists about a wide array of subjects including history, flora, fauna, traditional technologies and indigenous languages – some on the brink of extinction. It is these elders who have been the first to die of covid-19.

It is these elders who have been the first to die of covid-19.

We have been watching genocide happen in real time. In June, information from the Special Indigenous Health Districts (DSEI) of the Brazilian Amazon showed that the Tapajós River, in the southern Brazilian Amazon, had the highest mortality rates of all indigenous health districts in Brazil. Then, the Munduruku people witnessed an increase of more than 300% in the number of deaths within their territory. Since May, covid has taken the lives of 13 Munduruku and one Apiaká on the middle and upper reaches of the river. Twelve of them were elders. Jerônimo Manhuary (86) died on May 10, Angélico Yori (76) on May 22 and Raimundo Dace (70) on May 26. On the first five days of June, Vicente Saw (71), Amâncio Ikõ (59), Arcelino Dace (77), Francidalva Saw (40), Martinho Borõ (77), Benedito Karo (70) and Bernardo Akay also died. Amália Poxo, Joaquim Poxo (88) and Apolônia Apiaká died between June 17 and 22, and Elinaldo Kirixi (50) on July 9.

Their deaths go far beyond local and family tragedies: “We also worry about the loss of our history, kept and passed on by our elders, specialists and shamans, for whom the virus is deadlier,” explain the Munduruku in a recent letter. The son of Arcelino, Honésio Dace, explained that his father had belonged to the last generation of Munduruku who were taught in the traditional Uksa, or men’s house, a structure that is no longer part of Munduruku village life.

We have been watching genocide happen in real time.

Amâncio Ikõ, killed by covid on June 2, 2020, while accompanying studies by a working group established to draw up the limits of the Munduruku Sawre Bapin territory in 2019.
Amâncio Ikõ, killed by covid on June 2, 2020, while accompanying studies by a working group established to draw up the limits of the Munduruku Sawre Bapin territory in 2019. | Photo: Rosamaria Loures. All rights reserved.

Amâncio Ikõ Munduruku, Chief Vicente and Martinho Borõ

Amâncio Ikõ Munduruku was one of the principal leaders of the Munduruku of the middle Tapajós. He spent his life fighting for his people’s access to healthcare, specific education, territory and identity. He founded the Munduruku Pariri Association in 1998, fundamental in the struggle for the rights of the Munduruku people. Taken ill, he had to wait for three days before an intensive care bed was made available 550 miles away in the state capital, Belém; by then his oxygen levels had fallen so severely he had to wait another night, because he would not have survived the flight. “We do not want my father to die on his own,” said his son Arlisson Ikõ Biatpu. Their family had to fight so that Arlisson’s brother André could be allowed to accompany his father to Belém.

Amâncio’s village, Praia do Mangue, is located on the outskirts of the town of Itaituba on the middle Tapajós, which, with over a hundred thousand people, had only four intensive care beds until last week, when a hospital was at last inaugurated (it is still not entirely finished). Approximately one thousand Munduruku live in the middle Tapajós region.

Along the upper Tapajós, where approximately 13 thousand Munduruku live, the closest town – population eight thousand – is Jacareacanga. Its hospital has no intensive care beds and so far, no Munduruku admitted there with covid has left the hospital alive. This has led some Munduruku families to bar their relatives from being sent there.

The rapid spread of covid-19 among Munduruku villages on the upper Tapajós has a lot to do with the penetration of goldmining operations in the region. In April, as SARS-CoV-2 spread, one of the Munduruku territories (Terra Indígena Munduruku) was the most deforested of all indigenous lands in Brazil as illegal goldminers took advantage of the Brazilian government’s tacit approval: security forces were stopped from being deployed in actions to control invasions of traditionally occupied territories and public lands. Following the lead from Brazil’s (anti)-minister for the Environment, Ricardo Salles – who at a cabinet meeting on April 22 suggested the pandemic be used as an opportunity to erode environmental protections while the press looked the other way – invaders have not gone on lockdown, but rather have been making the most of this moment to further their gains.

After goldminers held a demonstration in Jacareacanga and encouraged the Munduruku from nearby villages, including Sai Cinza, to take part, Chief Vicente – who had not left his village – contracted the virus and died. Taken to Jacareacanga for treatment, he was not able to consult a shaman before dying, and was buried there, instead of in his village. This represents a traumatic breach of custom, as Munduruku traditions hold that the dead need to be kept close and looked after by the living.

Martinho Borõ was an historian, teacher and authority. Flown to Jacareacanga from his village on the Tropas River (a tributary of the upper Tapajós), with breathing difficulties, he was given the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine, which Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, has insisted on promoting. Ministry of Health guidelines stipulate that the consent of patients and/or their families is needed, but it is doubtful whether Martinho would have been in a position to agree, while his companion is not likely to have been fluent in Portuguese. It is said to have worsened his condition.

Arcelino Dace, killed by covid on June 3, 2020, observes archaeological excavation at Sawre Muybu village while narrating Munduruku myths and commenting on ceramic technology in 2014.
Arcelino Dace, killed by covid on June 3, 2020, observes an archaeological excavation at Sawre Muybu village while narrating Munduruku myths and commenting on ceramic technology in 2014. | Photo: Bruna Rocha. All rights reserved.

Environmental degradation

Over the past 500 years, the invasion of indigenous territories has always been accompanied by epidemic outbreaks: the European invasion of the Americas is estimated to have led to nine in every ten indigenous people dying. The difference now is the scale of environmental degradation. This degradation is disfiguring landscapes that served as mnemonic references for forest peoples who live on the Tapajós and aggravating the spread of other illnesses, such as malaria. The arrival of covid-19 now compounds the erosion of the singular history and tradition of these territories. Not even the destruction of historical and cultural heritage caused by the burning of the National Museum in Rio in 2018 can rival the irreversible impact of the death of so many elders at once. As Jair Borõ, the first archaeology graduate of the Munduruku people wrote, “The elders have great knowledge, they tell us about events involving our people, about how things were made and why, as well as about what is forbidden.” On June 4, Jair, his pregnant wife and two small children travelled 500 miles back to Jacareacanga from Santarém, where he was studying, in order to say goodbye to Martinho Borõ, his grandfather. They were too late. Another library had been set alight.

But Jair helped make sure his grandfather’s body was taken back to his village. His generation now faces an unparalleled test – to protect their people and, by extension, territory, in the face of ever-increasing devastation and attacks. They are up to the challenge: led by seven indigenous lawyers, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil and six political parties successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to force the government to implement a number of protective actions.

This is urgently needed: a recent investigation has revealed that in spite of the pandemic, the Brazilian federal government has spent less on indigenous health in the first half of 2020 than it did in the first half of 2019. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro vetoed 16 basic measures to be implemented by law 14021/20, aimed at protecting indigenous and traditional communities from covid – including the provision of drinking water, food supplies and hygiene materials. Bolsonaro’s purpose couldn’t be clearer.

Bolsonaro’s purpose couldn’t be clearer.

Poor world

Official statistics compiled by the Indigenous Health Service (SESAI) are only counting infections and deaths of indigenous people from covid within officially ratified territories. This excludes the swathes of indigenous peoples who live in territories that have not yet been officially recognised because of the State's incompetence - or unwillingness - to demarcate (during the presidential elections, Bolsonaro promised not to recognise "1cm more” of indigenous lands, something which represents a breach of his constitutional duty) or who live in towns and cities. Data compiled by APIB – the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil – show over 16, 803 indigenous have been infected and 544 have died, affecting 130 different indigenous peoples. Analysis by the Coordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon, COIAB, and the Environmental Research Institute of the Amazon, IPAM, has shown that the mortality rate for indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon is 150% higher than the national average.

Still, the vice-president of the country, Hamilton Mourão, in charge of the Amazon Council, has said that “Genocide was committed by Stalin against Russian minorities, by Hitler against the Jews; it was committed in Africa, in Rwanda, and in other cases. [It was committed] by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds” – but it is a charge, he says, that does not apply to the Brazilian state.

Meanwhile, the Munduruku have taken it upon themselves to take actions that the State should be promoting, such as providing bilingual information on preventative measures, installing radio communication between villages, distributing food and hygiene equipment. Like other indigenous and traditional peoples they are painfully aware that, with this avalanche of deaths, our world is already poorer.

This is the English version of an article, 'Na Amazônia, as bibliotecas estão sendo incendiadas' , originally published in El Pais on June 3, 2020.

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