For Indigenous people of the Amazon, the tragedy of COVID-19 is an all too familiar story

Steve Schwartzman

As we are seeing everywhere, COVID-19 relentlessly exposes the greatest inequities and injustices of our society. In Brazil, Indigenous people die of the virus about twice as often as the general population.

As news of the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the Panará territory, Akà, leader of the Indigenous Panará people, recorded a message for his friends expressing his concerns: “Why have the white people done what they’ve done with us, Indigenous people? I’m very concerned, for myself and for my people. We are waiting to see if [COVID-19] will get to our territory. If it gets here, it is going to finish us off.”

A history of death and loss

Hardly a day went by when I was living with Akà without someone recalling the cataclysmic wave of epidemics that nearly exterminated the Panará. The disease arrived when the government built a road through the center of the Panara’s isolated Amazon forest territory in the early 1970s.

“First, an old woman died. Then everyone got fever and cough, chest pain and sore throat. It was hard to breathe. We managed to bury some of the dead, then so many died. We were so sick and weak, we couldn’t bury the dead anymore,” Akà recalled.

His story is neither new nor exceptional. Essentially all of the 450 Indigenous peoples of the Amazon are survivors of the genocide that began in the 1500s, when Portuguese and Spanish colonizers unleashed war, enslavement and – most lethal of all – new viral diseases that laid waste across the region, killing millions.

COVID-19 is only the most recent chapter of a very long story.

The compounding crises facing Indigenous peoples today

COVID-19’s disastrous effects on Indigenous peoples are intimately bound up with increasing Amazon deforestation and rampant invasions of Indigenous territories and protected areas.

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro is equally willing to flout his own government’s policies on the pandemic as he is to ignore the science that shows the Amazon near an irreversible tipping point. At a time when the Amazon is at high risk of a record-breaking fire season.

A little more deforestation would change much of the forest into scrub brush and radically reduce rainfall. This mass loss of forest would release tens of billions of tons of CO₂ into the atmosphere.

The consequences would be catastrophic for the planet.

COVID-19, fires and Bolosnaro’s active encouragement of illegal land-grabs, mining and logging on Indigenous territories are very seriously threatening one of the greatest advances for the climate and human rights of the last century.

What’s at stake

The Indigenous people of the Amazon who survived the opening of the frontier since the 1960s, have won official recognition of – and, largely, control over – their territories. Along with the protected areas inhabited by traditional peoples, these territories now represent half of the Amazon – think half the size of the continental U.S. west of the Mississippi.

Akà and the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon are a fundamental reason why Brazil was able to reduce Amazon deforestation 80% between 2004 and 2014.

So whether Akà and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon are overrun by illegal loggers, miners and land-grabbers and decimated by COVID-19 affects us all. We should support them however we can.

Get involved

United for a Living Amazon (União Amazônia Viva) is a major regional initiative that provides direct support for Indigenous peoples to combat COVID-19.

SOS Amazônia has launched a campaign on behalf of a broad grassroots coalition of Indigenous and traditional peoples, the Union of the Peoples of the Forest, to directly support local communities affected by COVID-19.

The Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil is also taking donations to support local communities.