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Survival of Brazil's Indigenous groups hinges on urgent Covid response, human rights groups warn

"Literally the last members of certain Indigenous communities are dying, and there are no successors," Brazilian human rights lawyer Raphaela Lopes said.
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Brazil needs to act urgently as Covid-19 causes devastating — and irreparable — loss in the country's Indigenous communities, according to a stark new report.

A report by two human rights organizations, The Observatory, an international group, and Justiça Global, a Brazilian group, point to the country's stretched public health infrastructure, President Jair Bolsonaro's lack of a cohesive and rigorous Covid-19 policy and other geographic and governmental challenges that threaten vulnerable communities like the Indigenous populations.

"We have been witnessing the end of Indigenous peoples, like, literally the last members of certain Indigenous communities are dying, and there are no successors," said Raphaela Lopes, a lawyer with Justiça Global.

Brazil is one of the top three countries for Covid-19 infections, after the U.S. and India, with over 11 million confirmed cases and more than 268,000 deaths as of Thursday.

Image: The late Aruka Juma from the state of Rondonia in Brazil.
The late Aruka Juma from the state of Rondonia in Brazil.Courtesy Comunica Kaninde

Indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus; experts even warned at the beginning of the pandemic that it "will be catastrophic."

About 305 Indigenous tribes represent about 900,000 people in Brazil, according to the human rights group Survival International. Half live outside the Amazon, but Brazil also uniquely is home to a large number of Indigenous people who haven't had outside human contact.

There have been 50,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and over 900 deaths among Indigenous communities, according to the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, which tracks and advocates for the country's Indigenous movement.

Those who have died include people working in health care, traditional healing, politics and education, as well as chiefs and leaders of their own tribes, according to the report.

Aruká Juma, the last male Indigenous leader of the Juma people, a community dating to the 18th century, died from Covid-19 complications in February. His grandson Bitate Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, of the Jamari village in the state of Rondônia, who represents two Indigenous communities, including Juma, confirmed his death.

Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, 20, recounted memories of the time he and his family spent with his grandfather. He recalled how his grandfather taught his brother how to make a belt representative of the Juma tribe.

"I think it's one of my last memories of him that I have, because it was the last time I saw him, thinking I would see him again," he said. "Unfortunately, it's not happening."

Image: The late Aruka Juma from the state of Rondonia in Brazil.
The late Aruka Juma from the state of Rondonia in Brazil.Courtesy Comunica Kaninde

Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau said the government's support for agribusiness over the environment and the failure to protect Indigenous land have contributed to the situation.

"I think this is what the federal government wants, to diminish the Indigenous tribes and diminish Indigenous lands for agribusiness, who are betting more each time on deforestation, on cattle farming, for exports. And we have a great challenge in countering this," he said.

Among the recommendations put forth for the government are to improve access to water for people living in precarious housing, to be more transparent about Covid-19 health information and to offer more test kits and strategies to protect vulnerable communities. Lopes said the government had not yet responded to the report.

Image: The late Aruka Juma from the state of Rondonia in Brazil.
The late Aruka Juma from the state of Rondonia in Brazil.Courtesy Comunica Kaninde

Bolsonaro's office did not directly address the report in response to an inquiry, but several government agencies outlined their Covid-19 strategies for Indigenous communities.

The Health Ministry's Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health said it had 14,200 health professionals, 47 percent of them Indigenous, assisting Indigenous communities. The government said it is providing essential services for Covid-19 detection and prevention, including transportation resources, food distribution, testing, treatment and access to vaccinations.

Geographic and governmental challenges

The majority of Indigenous territories are in the Amazon, according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, a human rights group. About 13.8 percent of land in Brazil has been reserved for Indigenous people. The Amazon forest and its Indigenous lands span nine northern states, including Amazonas and neighboring Rondônia, where Aruká Juma's descendants live.

For some Indigenous communities, the area's remoteness makes it harder to access medical care, which makes it harder to treat Covid-19 patients.

"For you to arrive at the Juma land, you have to leave Porto Velho, which is the capital of the state of Rondônia. You take five hours by car, plus two hours by boat, to reach the village," said Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo, a board member at the environmental conservation group Kaninde, describing the distance some Indigenous people have to travel to reach a hospital.

Indigenous communities' history with pandemics, such as measles, has led to widespread death, Cardozo said. Indigenous people in particular don't have the same immunity against pathogens as the rest of the Brazilian population, because they live in more isolated communities, the report says.

To limit Indigenous communities' exposure to the virus, the National Indian Foundation said in a statement that it has delivered about 600,000 food baskets and created about 300 sanitary barriers to stop non-Indigenous people from entering their areas. It has also partnered with authorities "to curb illicit activities, such as illegal logging, mining, and predatory hunting and fishing."

Brazil's Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights said it had delivered 326,527 food baskets to Indigenous communities to prevent infection and promote social isolation.

Vaccination efforts

On Jan. 17, Brazil began its vaccination rollout, which included and prioritized its Indigenous populations, but experts are concerned that operations aren't moving quickly enough.

The Health Ministry said in a statement that Indigenous communities are among the priority groups and that they "already have available all the necessary doses to immunize more than 410,000 people." It said 270,000 of them have been vaccinated with the first doses of one of the two-dose vaccines and that 152,000 have already had the second doses.

However, territories like Karão Jaguaribaras in the state of Ceará, outside the Amazon, haven't had access to vaccinations, as their lands are not legally recognized. In addition, Indigenous people living in cities are reported not to have been included in the groups with priority, which threatens to spread the virus.

Influential religious groups are also seen as a threat to progress around Covid-19 education and vaccinations. Evangelical and fundamentalist churches throughout the Amazon region have been sources of misinformation by "linking the vaccine to things of the devil," Cardozo said.

An online campaign aimed at Indigenous communities is trying to encourage vaccinations through the hashtag #VacinaParente, which translates to "vaccinate relatives." In an example Cardozo shared, a local nonprofit organization based in Manaus in the state of Amazonas is seen posting a photo of a colleague being vaccinated to share with groups in other parts of Brazil.

Human rights advocates say protecting the communities is an urgent priority.

"History is dying in a way," Lopes said. "It's very sad what we have been witnessing here in Brazil."

Yan Boechat reported from São Paulo.

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