Nine months after the novel coronavirus was announced in China, it has spread to nearly every inch of the globe. Even the most isolated communities are not protected from it, as the virus itself and its secondary socioeconomic effects ripple through societies. Across the world, the poorest and most disenfranchised people continue to suffer most from the virus. This is especially the case for indigenous people, who continue to be treated as second-class citizens in many states. In the Amazon basin, which includes nine countries, Covid-19 threatens not only the physical but also the cultural survival of indigenous communities, as it kills elders steeped in traditional knowledge. The region’s federal governments haven’t done enough to protect rural indigenous communities, which are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic due to lack of access to adequate healthcare and sanitation, language barriers, multigenerational households, and poverty.
The current pandemic represents the latest iteration of the centuries of diseases introduced to indigenous people by white settlers, who often have more acquired immunity than those whose lands they invade. In the Amazon, the biggest threat is often illegal loggers and miners, who violently invade indigenous lands and bring disease with them. In response, many rural indigenous groups in the Amazon basin have taken matters into their own hands to assert micro-sovereignty and lock down their communities. Numerous reports document indigenous communities enforcing quarantines, banning outsiders, and erecting barricades to prevent access to their villages. In Brazil, an indigenous coalition even took their efforts to the Supreme Court to demand protection. These assertions of sovereignty need to be understood within a centuries-long indigenous struggle for land, autonomy, and wellbeing. The devastation of Covid-19 on indigenous communities is part of a long history of colonial encroachment on indigenous sovereignty.
The act of communal isolation from the outside world is neither new nor surprising: it is a common practice and natural response to the continuing threat of colonial encroachment. Even the most “isolated” indigenous groups are acutely aware of and affected by the outside world— this only drives their self-isolationment. Indigenous communities have faced centuries of colonization and land displacement at the hands of conquistadores, governments, and now, loggers and miners. Many states, particularly Brazil, fail to enforce the legal protections given to indigenous people and their land, allowing—and even encouraging—the illegal exploitation of natural resources. These activities threaten indigenous livelihoods with deforestation, mining-related pollution, and land displacement. They also are often directly violent, with numerous documented murders perpetrated by loggers in order to secure land and power. The pandemic has not halted land-grabbing—Brazil actually saw a 51 percent rise in deforestation as of April in comparison to the first quarter of 2019. Before the virus raged in the Amazon, Ibama (Brazil’s environmental agency) scaled back its enforcement operations to protect its aging workforce from the virus. However, the rise cannot be attributed solely to the pandemic—it actually began a year prior, when illegal operators were emboldened by Jair Bolsonaro’s loosening of environmental restrictions, general callousness towards the rule of law, and indifference towards indigenous rights.
Covid-19 makes encroachment on indigenous lands even more dangerous, but land-grabbers bringing disease is far from new. The mass tragedies that occurred from European diseases upon the initial colonization of the Americas is well known, but the conventional telling of this history often belies the lesser-known fact that this pattern never really ended. Violent land encroachment and abusive laws represent the active, ongoing colonization of the continent, and colonizers continue to spread disease.
While land is the battleground, attacks on indigenous sovereignty have far-reaching health consequences, with a long history of loggers, miners, and other encroachers introducing infectious diseases into indigenous communities. Beyond the obvious socioeconomic and healthcare inequities, isolated indigenous people continue to have less immunity to outside diseases. Even though the current coronavirus strain is new for everyone, it is far more dangerous to isolated populations that lack immunity to related diseases. In the 1970s, an estimated 38 percent of Paraguay’s isolated Northern Aché people died of respiratory diseases within two years of their first known contact with outsiders. In the 1980s, an estimated 20 percent of Venezuela and Brazil’s Yanomami population died from disease and violence in just seven years of land occupation by gold miners. In 2018, nearly 500 Yanomami people were sickened by a measles outbreak attributed to illegal gold miners.
The pattern of invasion-related outbreaks continues, as rainforest encroachers introduce coronavirus to the most remote reaches of South America. Just a few months ago, miners and loggers in both Peru and Brazil tore down barriers constructed by indigenous communities isolating from Covid. In early April, a 15-year-old Yanomami boy in Brazil passed away after battling the virus. His source of infection was never confirmed, but it is likely not coincidentally that he lived in Rehebe, a village along the Uraricoera River, which is used by illegal gold miners to access the surrounding territories. As many as 20,000 illegal gold miners, or garimpeiros, live in Yanomami territory—a sizable threat compared to the 26,000 Yanomami. The alarm raised by the initial death proved to be true: as of late September, Yanomami people in Brazil had suffered from 700 confirmed Covid-19 cases, representing 2.6 percent of the Yanomami population in Brazil. This may be only the tip of the iceberg, considering the potentially thousands more who have not been tested.
Covid-19 is also wreaking havoc on other rural indigenous groups across the region, threatening extinction for several small communities. At least 46 percent of the 121 Arara people living in Brazil’s Cachoeira Seca reserve have been infected. Not coincidentally, the area is considered one of the most frequently invaded in the entire Amazon. In May, Brazil’s indigenous population faced a 12.6 percent Covid mortality rate, compared to the national rate of 6.4 percent. In Peru, the indigenous Covid mortality rate is eight times the national average at 16 percent. These startlingly high figures can be attributed to not only a lack of immunity but also structural inequities.
In Brazil, indigenous groups have taken the federal government’s failure to protect them into their own hands. The Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB), a newly-recognized coalition of different indigenous groups, filed a lawsuit against the federal government on the grounds of omission and irresponsibility related to the pandemic. On August 5, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, accusing Bolsonaro’s government of failing to protect indigenous people. They required that the administration draw up a plan within 30 days and implement measures like sanitary barriers to halt access to communities—a legal recognition of what was already an indigenous practice. However, they did not comply with a major aim of the lawsuit: to expel outsiders like illegal miners from indigenous lands. The case thus represented a partial victory, particularly in the pan-indigenous organizing that created it. This serves as a reminder of the dependence indigenous people have on an abusive state and the state’s refusal to enforce their sovereignty. In his closing statements, indigenous lawyer Eloy Terena quoted Yanomami author Davi Kopenawa:
“I would have liked to say to the whites, already at the time of the road: ‘Do not go back to our forest! Your Xawara epidemics have devoured enough of our parents and grandparents here! We don’t want to feel such sadness again! Make way for your trucks away from our land!’”
The word xawara is a Yanomami word for epidemics introduced by white people—a tale so common it has its own name.
This quote underscores how much the fate of indigenous people continues to be tied to the fate of their lands. The pandemic is an extension of centuries of threats on their land sovereignty: their abilities to return to and live in their homeland, without encroachment or displacement. It has brought to light long-existing inequities, exposing the overlapping bounds of local autonomy and the state. Despite wide awareness of the tragedies befalling indigenous people in the immediate decades post-colonization, the world ignores the fact that this process continues today. Until we learn from the past and recognize it in the present, indigenous people will continue to die at the hands of white colonial violence.
Image via Flickr (greensefa)