Eye on the Amazon

The Munduruku and Kayapo Are Fighting to Protect Their Past and Future

In response to the government's malign neglect in the Brazilian Amazon during the pandemic, our Amazon Defenders Fund, in partnership with allies, delivers oxygen concentrators and crucial health equipment

Amazon Defense Fund COVID relief delivered to the Indigenous Health District (Dsei) Rio Tapajos Team

We are witnessing the devastating effects of negligent and narcissistic government leadership, as COVID-19 cases continue to explode from the U.S. to the Amazon. Scientists, health experts, and Indigenous peoples are rightfully calling out governments for their failure to prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. In the Amazon, our Indigenous partners warned us months ago about the potential ethnocide they were facing as health systems – which were already inaccessible to many Indigenous communities – began to collapse.

Their warning is now a harrowing reminder that government inaction was and continues to be intentional, as access to proper health care for the virus determines whether someone will live or die. In Brazil alone, where the recently-infected President Bolsonaro has been referring to COVID-19 as the "little flu," the pandemic has now taken the lives of over 491 Indigenous people and infected close to 14,000. Indigenous communities are losing their elders and their children – their past and their future.

In the absence of government leadership, the Munduruku and Kayapó peoples in the Brazilian Amazon turned to Amazon Watch and we used our Amazon Defenders Fund to deliver oxygen concentrators, medical supplies, generators, hygienic materials, and food kits. The Fund continues to be a last line of defense for yet another community in the fight against COVID-19.

Together with Greenpeace Brazil, Expedicionários da Saúde and the Special Indigenous Sanitary District of Tapajós (DSEI), we sent 40 oxygen concentrators and medical supplies to the Munduruku people who live on the banks of the Tapajós River in Pará state. Oxygen concentrators are helpful for the treatment of COVID-19 because they are easy to transport and can be quickly installed in health centers near Indigenous villages. More than 689 Indigenous people from the Tapajós region have tested positive for COVID-19 and fourteen Munduruku have died. Ten of those who passed were considered sábios, or wise elders.

Alessandra Munduruku, the first female president of the Pariri Association and a leader of the Munduruku people, personally picked up the shipment when it arrived in her village and explained why protecting elders in her community is important: "We always say they are 'living libraries.' Inside our villages, the elderly who get COVID-19 cannot isolate themselves, they are not like outsiders who can work from home. Elders are always concerned about our people. We have no infrastructure within the village, and we do not have a field hospital. When we lose an elder, it is already very difficult. Imagine losing several at the same time. It's like a library is being burned because without them we can't learn, we can't teach our children. It's been very painful."

The Munduruku people have been resisting illegal gold mining and deforestation on their territory for years. Mining has contaminated the Tapajós river, and fish from the river have been found to be filled with mercury. The medical supplies delivered will provide some relief from the coronavirus crisis, and the oxygen concentrators will help save lives.

The Kayapó Indigenous Land forms one of the most significant blocks of protected forest in the Amazon and in recent decades has represented a barrier against deforestation in one of the regions undergoing the most intense mining, illegal logging, invasive ranchers, and uninvited missionaries. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these threats. In collaboration with the Kayapó Indigenous people, Amazon Watch with Expedicionários da Saúde, Associação Floresta Protegida, DSEI Kayapó do Pará, Conservation International, and Tribes Alive delivered 50 concentrators, generators, and other medical equipment. The supplies will be used to treat patients of intermediate severity, intervening before their condition deteriorates so they don't need to be transported to hospitals in cities. DSEI Kayapó serves 75 Indigenous communities, with a total of 6,684 people, through four community health centers that will receive oxygen concentrators to treat their confirmed cases. So far, eight Indigenous people have died and 226 tested positive for COVID-19.

Alongside these two projects, the Amazon Defenders Fund has also supported the fight against hunger in Brazil by donating basic food kits as the pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity in several communities that live in rural isolation. Dioclécio Potyguara, an Indigenous leader from Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil shared, "in times of pandemic, giving is an act of humanity and love. In this sense, we Indigenous people of Rio Grande do Norte, thank Amazon Watch for providing us with one of the essential elements of life: food. The grant through the Amazon Defenders Fund has given us dignity and hope that, together, we will overcome this chaos that plagues our country."

We are supporting preventative measures, like the acquisition of hygiene, cleaning and prevention materials, communications materials, radio and internet access, as well as transportation (some communities are four days away by boat). The Amazon Defenders Fund is also supporting long-term food sovereignty projects, making it possible for the community to purchase fishing and farming materials, in addition to donating organic seeds and construction water wells. Since March, our projects have supported more than 10,000 Indigenous people.

Bolsonaro vetoes life-saving bill for Indigenous people

A recent analysis by the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) showed the coronavirus mortality rate among Indigenous people is 150% higher than the Brazilian average.

Several NGOs and many Indigenous communities are still fighting the pandemic alone: creating sanitary barriers, promoting fundraising campaigns, producing masks and soap for their villages, and working with allies like Amazon Watch.

In contrast, President Bolsonaro continues facilitating the genocide of Indigenous people through his policies, this time by failing to support a crucial bill that would have saved lives. On July 8th, he vetoed provisions of a law that required the federal government to provide drinking water, disinfectants, and a guarantee of hospital beds to Indigenous communities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bolsonaro vetoed sixteen parts of the law, including funding for the states and local governments with emergency plans for Indigenous communities, as well as provisions to help them to obtain more information on COVID-19, including increased internet access. He argued that those provisions in the law, approved by Congress, were "against the public interest" and "unconstitutional" by creating expenses for the federal government without new sources of revenue to cover them. The veto demonstrates the racist intent of Bolsonaro's government and points to the imminent risk of ethnocide that Indigenous peoples and traditional communities are facing during the pandemic.

Dinaman Tuxá, Executive Coordinator of the Association of Indigenous People in Brazil (APIB), explains how this veto and the government's persistent inaction during the coronavirus crisis affects Indigenous communities: "We have numerous problems that are being aggravated with the arrival of the coronavirus. When the government turns its back and refuses to implement actions, and this responsibility falls to the Indigenous movement, it is only with support like this from Amazon Watch that we can mitigate the impacts caused by the absence of the government to fight the coronavirus, deforestation, fires, and to protect our territories. So it is very important that we express our gratitude, but also our cry for help so that other resources can still come to support Indigenous peoples facing these threats, which continue to endanger our lives."

Global attention and solidarity are crucial at this moment as the Munduruku, Kayapó, and other Indigenous people across the Amazon resist the escalating threat of COVID-19. The lack of government action and cooperation is furthering the ethnocide of Indigenous people, but the Amazon Defenders Fund will continue to join forces with Indigenous associations and organizations to support their demands during this critical period. It is up to all of us to condemn Bolsonaro's destructive policies and support Indigenous resistance.

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