Brazil’s coronavirus Hunger Games: Indigenous communities and their struggle for survival

The health threat to Indigenous peoples cannot be analysed in a context apart from the Bolsonaro administration's history of contempt.

Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann
Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann
23 June 2020, 7.11pm
Indigenous women of Brazil wearing face masks with the inscription "Indigenous lives matter" show the face masks they sewed amid the pandemic
Lucas Silva/DPA/PA Images

With the coronavirus infections steeply rising, Brazil now has the second highest number of cases and deaths worldwide, behind only the US. Today, Brazil is Latin America’s virus hotspot, with cases exceeding 1 million and with a death toll above 50,000 – by far the highest in all Latin America. Brazil’s out-of-control pandemic, which will peak in the next couple of weeks, raises concerns over the safety of Brazilians; and over regional and international security.

Since the beginning of the global pandemic, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro downplayed the threat posed by the virus, declaring it was “a minor cold” and stating that he was not concerned about contracting the virus because of his “athletic physique.” He accused his political foes and the press for “tricking citizens” about the threats posed by the coronavirus.

In just one month, Bolsonaro has presided over administrative chaos. He fired one health minister and caused another to resign over diverging views on social distancing measures and for failing to back Bolsonaro on his endorsement of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine for coronavirus patients. The shoddy replacement and acting health minister, Eduardo Pazuello, is a former general with no medical training.

In many ways, Bolsonaro’s coronavirus response is similar to his US counterpart, Donald Trump. His ideological agenda, however, might prove to be even more devastating to Brazil’s democratic institutions and minority groups. By giving the global pandemic an ideological spin, the administration compromised Brazil’s response to the crisis, creating widespread political and institutional chaos. A point neglected in this tragedy is the issue of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples amid the pandemic.

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Indigenous communities under threat

President Bolsonaro is known for his ideological platform when dealing with Brazil’s Indigenous communities. He declared from the beginning that he will "integrate" Indigenous peoples. Last year Bolsonaro stated on Twitter that Brazil’s native peoples are "exploited" by international NGOs. In his words: “More than 15% of the national territory is demarcated as Indigenous land. Less than a million people live in these isolated places in Brazil, exploited and manipulated by NGOs". Bolsonaro also stated: "We have an area larger than the Southeast region of Brazil as Indigenous land. The Ianomami Reserve is twice the size of Rio de Janeiro with just 9,000 Indigenous people. Doesn't that seem wrong?”

Last year, the government changed the guidelines regarding demarcations of Indigenous lands, making them increasingly difficult to implement

Bolsonaro has said he will not demarcate “one single centimeter” of Brazil’s vast Amazon territory to Indigenous communities. Along these lines, Bolsonaro contends we ought to "integrate" Indigenous people, going on to state that “Indians want doctors, dentists, television and internet. We will provide the means for Indians to be like the rest of us”.

To complicate things further, Bolsonaro has promised to legalize mining throughout the country, including in Indigenous lands. Last year, the Waiãpi territory in Amapá was invaded by miners around the same time Indigenous leader Emyra Waiãpi was found dead. Brazil’s Federal Police is investigating the case, though Bolsonaro assured that “there is no strong evidence” to indicate he was murdered. Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) reported that 15 heavily armed men invaded the Indigenous land.

Last year, Bolsonaro appointed Marcelo Xavier da Silva as president of Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, a man well-known for his close ties to the country’s agribusiness sector, which sparked an international outcry from human rights activists.

In April of this year, FUNAI changed the agency’s guidelines regarding demarcations of Indigenous lands, making them increasingly difficult to implement. Critics argue that these new guidelines subvert the foundation’s mission and principles, which is to protect Brazil’s Indigenous peoples’ interests and rights.

Indigenous peoples during the pandemic

With confirmed cases within Brazil’s Indigenous communities, there are growing concerns they could be wiped out as a result of the pandemic. The numbers are alarming: more than 446 cases and 92 deaths have been confirmed among Indigenous communities in the Amazon Basin, with numbers steadily rising. Because of low levels of testing, cases and fatalities are likely heavily underreported.

Failure to control illegal logging in protected and non-protected areas increased the vulnerability of Indigenous peoples to coronavirus infections

Failure to control illegal logging in protected and non-protected areas increased the vulnerability of Indigenous peoples to coronavirus infections. According to the Demographic and Infrastructure Vulnerability Analysis of Covid-19 Indigenous Lands study, Indigenous lands with titles not officially demarcated create uncertainty, and increased logging, mining and other illegal activities, exposing Indigenous communities to a higher risk of contamination.

Another concern is the lack of infrastructure in the state of Amazonas, which has more than 63,700 coronavirus cases. The death toll in the capital city of Manaus forced the government to dig mass graves in the local cemetery to bury the victims. Brazil’s national funeral home association had to request coffins to be sent by plane from São Paulo to Manaus since there is no road access. The state’s public health is collapsing, with ICU occupancy levels above 90%.

The contempt shown by Bolsonaro and his circle towards the Indigenous population can be gathered by a recent ministerial meeting video, released to the Brazilian press after a high court decision by judge Celso de Mello. In the footage, the president and some of his ministers are seen casting aspersions against Brazil’s Indigenous peoples. Infamously, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles suggested that the government should take advantage of the diversion caused by the pandemic to pass legislation and loosen environmental regulations. The now former Education Minister Abraham Weintraub was no less callous, stating that he “hates” the term Indigenous peoples. He goes on to emphasise how he hates “that term… I hate it, or Roma people. There is only one people in this country (…) it is the Brazilian people (…) we should put an end to this business of minority groups and privileges”.

Crises breed sinister opportunities. Is the coronavirus crisis just such a case? Bolsonaro increasingly uses the pandemic as an opportunity to advance his ideological platform when dealing with Brazil’s first peoples. Brazil’s Indigenous communities, and their right of self-determination, are hanging by a thread with Bolsonaro’s Orwellian newspeak and ruthless ideological crusade advancing – a political trend showing no signs of retreat in the foreseeable future.

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