Amid rising alarm that the novel coronavirus has reached deep into the Amazon rainforest, threatening isolated tribes, Brazil’s Supreme Court this month unanimously ruled in favor of Indigenous people’s demands to force the government to protect them from the pandemic.
Even before the ruling on August 5, Indigenous groups hailed the case as an unprecedented triumph. It was the first time the high court had agreed to hear a case brought by Indigenous litigants without intermediaries, such as the Indigenous affairs agency FUNAI. The agency, whose mission is to defend the rights and lands of Brazil’s Indigenous people, has come to be seen as adversarial to their interests under the rule of hard-right president Jair Bolsonaro.
“It’s a historic victory and extremely important for us Indigenous people,” says Luiz Eloy Terena, lead attorney for the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the country’s principal Indigenous federation, which partnered with six opposition political parties to bring the case against the government. “It’s a recognition of our own forms of social organization.”
The court ordered the administration to develop and implement a comprehensive plan within 30 days to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into Indigenous territories, particularly those where groups living in extreme isolation—so-called “uncontacted tribes”—are present. Additionally, the government must install a working group that includes Indigenous representatives, as well as establish a “situation room” in Brasilia to provide continuous monitoring of efforts to block or contain the pandemic in forest lands inhabited by isolated and recently contacted Indigenous groups.
To date, more than 25,000 Indigenous people in 146 tribal communities have tested positive for COVID-19 across Brazil, according to APIB. Nearly 700 have died. It’s not known if the pandemic has reached an isolated Indigenous group, but the prospect is stirring deep unease among advocates.
Although the Supreme Court ruled in favor of COVID-19 protections, it failed to set a timeline on another of the plaintiffs’ demands: the immediate expulsion of illegal loggers, miners, and land speculators from seven Indigenous territories scattered across the Amazon. Intrusions by outsiders pose an especially serious health risk as the pandemic rages, and the court’s refusal to impose a concrete plan for their removal has tempered jubilation among Indigenous leaders.
“This was an incomplete victory,” says Beto Marubo, of the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley, who returned to his office in Brasilia last week from a visit to his home along the border with Peru. “It was very symbolic and positive to get recognition from the Supreme Court, but we didn’t expect there would be a delay to effect an expulsion of the intruders.”
Given how easily COVID-19 spreads, Marubo fears the worst. “When we in the Javari say there is a possibility of genocide, we’re accused of being alarmist,” Marubo says. “But if one person from an isolated tribe is infected, he’s going to contaminate his entire group. Anyone with familiarity with the Javari knows that could happen.”
The sprawling Javari Valley Indigenous Territory in far-western Brazil is of special concern to health officials and Indigenous leaders. It hosts the highest concentration of isolated Indigenous communities in the world, and health experts say such tribes are at exceptionally high risk for the contagion, as they lack immunological defenses to pathogens that have evolved in faraway population centers.
Adding to the sense of urgency in the Javari and elsewhere, last week a group of uncontacted nomads entered the Kulina village of Terra Nova in the headwaters of the Envira River, some 30 miles southwest of Javari reserve in the state of Acre.
Speaking to O Globo newspaper from a village payphone, chief Cazuza Kulina reported that 10 to 20 tribespeople, including women and children, had taken foodstuffs, tools, and clothing before melting back into the forest. Villagers told the newspaper that several residents are presenting symptoms that could indicate the presence of the coronavirus: headaches, coughing, and lethargy. Cazuza said that neither FUNAI nor the Indigenous health service SESAI had reached the village to set up and staff quarantine sites—so-called “sanitary barriers”—that could have helped protect the group from COVID-19 and any number of infectious diseases.
“Since the beginning of Brazil’s colonization, these peoples suffered and died from infections brought by the colonizers—like measles, smallpox, tuberculosis, and various strains of flu,” Indigenous health expert Lucas Infantozzi Albertoni said in an email, referring to aboriginal populations that have had little or no contact with the outside world. He wrote from a hospital ship on the Tapajós River in the central Amazon, where he’s making annual rounds to treat patients from remote communities. “These illnesses produced enormous rates of mortality, leading to the extinction of entire ethnicities and the social disintegration of many others.”
COVID-19 on the threshold of uncontacted tribes
Even as the court ordered the implementation of sanitary barriers to halt the advance of the coronavirus, reports also emerged of the first cases of COVID-19 in villages perilously close to an isolated group in Javari Valley Indigenous Territory.
On August 6, an elderly woman of the Kanamari tribe succumbed to the illness after being evacuated from the settlement of Hobana, on the Upper Itaquaí River, less than 10 miles from gardens planted by an isolated tribe known as the Flecheiros—the Arrow People. (This Indigenous rights activist nearly came face-to-face with the 'Arrow People' 16 years ago.)
The first cases of COVID-19 in Javari reserve were reported in a village downriver, brought in most likely by government health care teams. But the sudden appearance of COVID-19 deep inside the reserve is troubling Indigenous leaders and health experts. With all its rivers flowing outward from a rugged headwaters region at its core, the reserve is easily protected from large-scale incursions by riverbank control posts. But as difficult as it is to reach villages such as Hobana by boat, experts say the virus has entered Javari through a kind of back door—foot trails opened through the forest by enterprising Kanamari to buy goods in towns such as Ipixuna and Eirunepé on the heavily transited Juruá River.
“Our big fear now, which has come to pass, is that the illness is entering along footpaths to the upper reaches of the rivers that have FUNAI checkpoints downstream,” Indigenous attorney Terena says. Besides the Kanamari, several other contacted Indigenous groups—Matis, Marubo, Matsés—occupy ground perilously close to isolated groups in the remote headwaters of Javari reserve, Terena explains, heightening opportunities for the virus to spread to nomads with no immunological defense to the illness and no ability to treat it.
So far, 441 cases of COVID-19 infection and two deaths have been reported in the Javari Valley, according to SESAI.
“An infection in one of the contacted villages could rapidly spread to these isolated groups,” Terena says. That’s especially true now with the onset of the dry season in the western Amazon region. It’s the time of year when floodwaters pull back from the forest floor, and entire communities—the uncontacted nomads in particular—are on the move in a quest for sustenance.
It’s also the time of year, says Beto Marubo, when isolated groups slip into settlements to help themselves to food and tools. The same isolated nomads have visited the Marubo village of São Joaquim, on the Ituí River, year after year. “They come in at night and take foodstuffs—bananas, sugarcane, potatoes—and tools like machetes and axes,” he says. “And there’s a confirmed case of coronavirus there.”
Fears of genocide
Though sharply criticized for its response to the COVID-19 crisis, FUNAI says the court’s ruling will do little to alter its plans. “The decision of the Supreme Court permits us to enhance the measures that have been undertaken by the Fundação Nacional do Índio [FUNAI] to protect Indigenous peoples since the outset of the pandemic,” the agency said in an email to National Geographic. The agency referred to its delivery of 500,000 food baskets to families in “situations of social vulnerability” and what it called support for more than 300 sanitary barriers.
But Indigenous leaders say FUNAI’s response has been woefully lacking, which is why they took their case to court to begin with. They worry too that the court’s refusal to set a timetable to expel intruders will feed a growing sense of impunity.
Marubo says poachers are appearing in Javari communities for the first time in decades, threatening villagers and FUNAI personnel with violence. In the Matsés village of Solís, they invoked the name of FUNAI worker Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, who was murdered last September in the nearby city of Tabatinga. “You saw how Maxciel was killed last year?” Marubo says, repeating the taunts of the criminals. “The same thing could happen to you.”
Dos Santos had worked for FUNAI to protect the isolated tribes in Javari reserve for 12 years before being shot by a hit man on a motorbike in broad daylight. No one was ever brought to account. (Violence escalates for indigenous communities as Brazil moves to weaken FUNAI.)
“There was no action from the authorities, nothing that would have shown a strong response from the Brazilian government,” Marubo says. As a result, other FUNAI workers have shown a reluctance to take their jobs seriously. “They’re saying to themselves: ‘If it happened to Maxciel, it could happen to me too.’”
Attorney Terena hopes the court’s ruling will breathe life into faltering efforts to contain the spread of the pandemic. Failure to take decisive action in the coming weeks, he says, could expose the government to charges of violating international law.
“I would like to point out that with respect to the isolated peoples, the failure to comply with the measures ordered by the court could occasion the genocide of these populations.”