COVID-19 and Conflict | COVID-19 in the Brazilian Amazon: forging solidarity bonds against devastation

The indigenous populations in the Amazon are putting up a commendable fight against the Brazilian government’s lack of adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are fighting an epic battle, not only trying to prevent being infected by the virus, but also encroachment by multiple actors on Amazonian land—a process that continues despite the pandemic. Here, we present the ongoing struggle of indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon and how they are resisting several threats simultaneously.

“The indigenous peoples, quilombolas, and the black population … they were always the invisible targets of such necropolitics. The only issue is that these matters are in the spotlight under this government.” (Pedro Raposo, Professor at the State University of the Amazonas)

The struggle for control over land in the Amazon is far from over. The region that is so diverse and rich in natural resources has been targeted by large capital, garimpeiros[1], loggers, and agribusiness that aim to extend the soy frontier through forced burnings of the forest. As the Amazon spans several country borders, border dynamics are also a challenge for the region, which faces problems such as drug trafficking, smuggling, narcotics, and a drug war among criminal gangs of different countries. When elected, Bolsonaro, current President of Brazil, announced that his government would not proceed with indigenous territory demarcation, a statement that made evident the prioritization of agribusiness interests over the rights of indigenous peoples. His policies are connected to the deforestation of the Amazon and to the deterioration in the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples in the region. In this context, the fight of indigenous peoples for the right to their land continues unabatedly.

COVID-19 accentuated these land crises and pushed Brazilian indigenous peoples to the limit, making their struggle for survival even more profound.[2] Due to the pandemic, the land-grabbing situation has deteriorated exponentially.[3] Even with a decrease in economic activity, land grabbers seem to have profited (i.e. increased their actions, sensing implicit approval)  from the lack of control and loose laws during the pandemic. Deforestation and burnings have increased dramatically[4] in a context where we would generally expect them to have declined.

Yet indigenous peoples are not giving up without a concerted and coordinated fight.

Despite original observations that the new coronavirus may be an urban crisis, unfortunately it got to the Amazon. Since indigenous peoples have had less contact with pathogens than the non-indigenous populations, mortality due to COVID-19 is higher among rural indigenous populations than among any other group in Brazil. An analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on this population performed by the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations in the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), and the Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon (IPAM) showed that the mortality rate from COVID-19 among indigenous people is 150% higher than the Brazilian average and 20% higher than recorded in the country’s northern region, where the highest mortality rate has been cited.[5] By January 2021, the number of deaths among the indigenous population hit 936, and 46,834 people from 161 different indigenous groups have been infected according to Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation (APIB).[6] Real numbers are expected to be higher as cases are underreported. As the guardians and propagators of their history, indigenous elders face the highest infection risks and mortality rates.[7]

Manaus is one of the cities that was worst hit by the pandemic. After leading a dramatic peak of deaths in the country in April 2020, the capital of the State of Amazonas revealed the potential devastation of COVID-19 in the Amazon region when the health system in the city collapsed. This situation became even direr due to the lack of oxygen available for patients at the start of this year. In April 2020, the municipal administration dug collective graves for burying bodies as the death rate tripled and burial services were overwhelmed. Now, in January 2021, Manaus is experiencing new record-high hospitalization and death rates.[8]

Collective graves being dug by tractors in April 2020 in municipal cemeteries in Manaus to deal with the sharp rise of burials due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related deaths. Source: Sandro Pereira, https://noticias.uol.com.br/saude/ultimas-noticias/redacao/2020/04/21/apos-boom-em-enterros-manaus-abre-covas-coletivas-para-vitimas-de-covid-19.htm

These numbers show that the Amazon is not excluded from globalization processes, which comes as both a benefit and a curse. While the connections among indigenous and non-indigenous groups brought the former health supplies and information, it was impossible to prevent this connection from being one of the vectors of transmission of the virus in the region.[9] This was the case even in the very isolated regions of the Amazon. Unable to rely on federal government support, indigenous organizations have come to rely on existing and new connections with local universities and the local public ministry to partially overcome the crisis. Working with organizations at the local level represents a change of strategy for groups that were used to lobbying only at the federal level. In Brazil, indigenous ‘matters’ are officially the responsibility of the federal government.

“Since the first case, with the death of our warrior Borari in Alter do Chão, we felt helpless… Different indigenous groups started working from their own organizations, making sure that public policies would work.” (Anderson Tapuia, CITA[10])

These partnerships supported the translation of informative materials to indigenous languages[11] that in some cases do not even have the word ‘disease’. Health support arrived by boats organized by civil society organizations. The ‘Saúde e Alegria’ initiative for example organized an ambulance boat that could reach isolated communities. In addition, they distributed donated food and hygiene products.

But all these efforts are not enough—the battle is also against those who should be protecting them. As presented in this series of three blogs, the present Brazilian government’s lack of strategy and specific policy to deal with the pandemic can be understood as necropolitics (Achille Mbembe[12]), as it weakens current protective institutions and destroys the chances of already vulnerable populations to survive in the pandemic.

Brazilian civil society may have acted in a fast, vocal, and organized way, reaching places that the state did not. These initiatives showed traces of a society based on solidarity bonds, citizen engagement, and may render them protagonists of their own transformation. However, to win this battle in the Brazilian Amazon, more is needed. A major change in the way the Brazilian government perceives indigenous peoples and the forest must first take place.


Footnotes

[1]Garimpo’ is a form of prospecting, often illegal and accompanied by precarious labour conditions, that uses rudimentary techniques to extract minerals. It generates a range of social and environmental problems as prospectors (garimpeiros) invade state or indigenous reserves, often through violence, diverting rivers and embankments and contaminating soil, air, and, water contamination with heavy metals, mainly mercury. In Yanomami indigenous territory, there are about 25,000 illegal gold miners https://observatoriodamineracao.com.br/maior-terra-indigena-do-brasil-ti-yanomami-sofre-com-25-mil-garimpeiros-ilegais-alta-do-ouro-preocupa-liderancas-que-tentam-evitar-disseminacao-da-covid-19/

[2] To understand this process, we performed desk research and a qualitative comparative analysis of in-depth semi-structured interviews among indigenous peoples, activists, researchers and senior academics in the Brazilian Amazon. This is the third and last post out of the three published on Bliss, in which we have been presenting the main findings of the research work about COVID-19 in Brazil for the ISS project ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’.

[3] In April 2020, during a peak of deaths related to the pandemic, the number of deforestation alerts in the Amazon rose by 64% compared to the same month in 2019. See https://epoca.globo.com/sociedade/como-desmatamento-se-alastra-na-amazonia-durante-escalada-de-pandemia-de-coronavirus-24441196

[4] For further information, please see (1) https://noticias.uol.com.br/meio-ambiente/ultimas-noticias/redacao/2021/01/08/desmatamento-na-amazonia-cresce-137-em-dezembro-diz-inpe.htm

(2) https://www.dw.com/pt-br/em-meio-%C3%A0-pandemia-amaz%C3%B4nia-enfrenta-amea%C3%A7a-tripla/a-53827092 and (3) https://www.opendemocracy.net/pt/covid-19-desmatamento-amazonia-brasil-colombia/

[5] See https://ipam.org.br/mortalidade-de-indigenas-por-covid-19-na-amazonia-e-maior-do-que-medias-nacional-e-regional/

[6] Information collected in January 26th, 2021. See https://covid19.socioambiental.org/

[7] See https://g1.globo.com/bemestar/coronavirus/noticia/2020/07/10/mortes-de-indigenas-idosos-por-covid-19-colocam-em-risco-linguas-e-festas-tradicionais-que-nao-podem-ser-resgatadas.ghtml and https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-53914416

[8] https://g1.globo.com/am/amazonas/noticia/2021/01/03/manaus-bate-novo-recorde-de-internacoes-por-covid-19-desde-o-inicio-da-pandemia.ghtml

[9] Besides the spread of the virus due to the movements of different actors related to land disputes (garimpeiros, loggers, etc.), contagion also occurred because of the displacement of health services to urban centres and the withdrawal of emergency aid. And there were also cases in which health workers spread the disease to indigenous communities. However, it is also important to note that not all indigenous peoples live in isolation from other indigenous communities or outside of urban areas.

[10] CITA, the Conselho Indígena Tapajós Arapiuns (Tapajós Arapiuns Indigenous Council), is an NGO that aims to ensure that public policies reach indigenous peoples, mainly those related to health, education, land issues, and social security.

[11] For more information, please see: https://ufrr.br/ultimas-noticias/6374-coronavirus-equipe-da-ufrr-traduz-para-linguas-indigenas-folhetos-informativos and https://www.ufam.edu.br/noticias-coronavirus/1238-instituto-de-natureza-e-cultura-produz-material-de-orientacao-sobre-o-covid-19-aos-indigenas-da-etnia-ticuna.html

[12] Necropolitics is a process in which the state uses political power – by its discourses, actions and omissions – to put specific groups into a more marginalised and vulnerable position (Mbembe, 2019).

About the authors:

Fiorella Macchiavello is an economist and holds an MA degree in Urban and Regional Development from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), Brazil. Currently, she is a PhD researcher in the third year of a Joint Degree between the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam and UnB, University of Brasilia, Brazil.

Renata Cavalcanti Muniz is a full time PhD researcher at ISS in the last year of her research. Her PhD research was funded by CNPQ-Brasil, and she is part of two research groups at ISS, DEC and CI.

Lee Pegler
Lee Pegler

Lee Pegler spent his early career working as an economist with the Australian Labour Movement. More recent times have seen him researching the labour implications of “new” management strategies of TNCs in Brazil/ Latin America. This interest expanded to a focus on the implications of value chain insertion on labour, both for formal and informal workers. Trained as an economist and sociologist (PhD – LSE), he currently works as Assistant Professor (Work, Organisation and Labour Rights) at the ISS.

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