Indigenous peoples of Brazil ask for help to fight Covid-19

Indigenous groups are mobilising against Bolsonaro, illegal encroachments and the far-right’s failure to deal with the pandemic. They need our support more than ever. (30/5/20)



[Featured photo: Manaus 27.04.20 – Collective burials at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida Public Cemetery. Credit: Alex Pazuello / Semcom]

There are currently 305 tribes in Brazil, totalling around 900,000 indigenous people that speak 274 different languages. The covid-19 pandemic has so far reached 75 tribes, according to APIB (Association of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil). By the 30th May, 1.604 individuals had been infected and 159 had died.

Currently, the epicentre of the epidemic is the State of Amazonas, where 28 indigenous health professionals were found to have been infected with covid-19. In the Kokama tribe, on the Alto Solimões river, 42 individuals have died, and after the death of a Yanomami in the State of Roraima, the Hutukara Yanomami Association decided that they should move further inside the forest to escape contamination. 76 health professionals were found to have been contaminated with covid-19 and Yanomami lands have been invaded by more than 20,000 gold prospectors. 

Manaus, the capital of the State of Amazonas, is in total chaos. The Special Indigenous Health District (DSEI) confirmed that many indigenous patients who were being treated for other illnesses were contaminated at the Indigenous Health Centre, as well as in state and municipal hospitals, then returned to their villages.

Manaus, AM 29/04/2020 – Enterros coletivos no Cemitèrio N.S de Aparecida no Taurmã em Manaus (Foto: Fernando Crispim/La Xunga/Amazônia Real)

The hospitals in the city of Manaus were at full capacity and now the situation is more critical outside the capital. The only hospital with an ITU outside Manaus is in the city of Tefé, approximately 522km from the capital.

The second Brazilian region most affected by covid-19 is the northeast, where indigenous people inhabit very impoverished areas. There have been 15 deaths so far in this region.

As is the case throughout Brazil, covid-19 numbers are underreported. Sonia Guajajara, president of APIB, states that “when the numbers published by the Indigenous Health Secretariat (Sesai) are compared with those observed by the indigenous movement, they reveal startling discrepancy. In addition to the negligence of the Brazilian State, there is also institutionalised racism”.

Brazil has 34 Special Indigenous Health Districts (DSEI). They are responsible for the health care of those living in indigenous villages. However, 36% of indigenous people in Brazil live in urban areas and are not under the care of DSEIbut of SUS, the Brazilian Health System, where they generally suffer discrimination.

The National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI)is not fulfilling its duties as it should. It is currently headed by former police chief, Marcelo Xavier. He advisor for the Farmers’ Parliamentary Caucus in the Parliamentary Enquiry on INCRA[1] and Funai[2].

PARÁ – BRAZIL – July 9th, 2016 – Aerial view of deforestation areas in the Brazilian Amazon forest, close to the Tapajos river watershed, caused by illegal gold mining (on the right) and raising cattle (on the left). [Photo credit: Leonardo Wen]

Bolsonaro government’s failure to combat the coronavirus pandemic is affecting indigenous peoples in every region, aggravating what was already a very dramatic situation. In the last year, 150 indigenous territories were invaded by landgrabbers, loggers and gold prospectors, instigated by the Federal Government. They are burning forests and killing indigenous leaders. In addition, the federal government is supporting the conversion of indigenous people to Christianity by evangelical missionaries.

This week Brazilians were perplexed by a video the Brazilian Supreme Court divulged of a meeting between President Bolsonaro and his ministers. In the video, the Education Minister, Abraham Weintraub, said he hated the indigenous people, whilst the Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, talked about using this period of the coronavirus pandemic to approve deregulation reforms, simplify rules and change environmental laws to benefit the most powerful.

Indígenas nas ruas do centro de São Gabriel da Cachoeira no Amazonas na manhã desta terça-feira (28-04-2020) (Foto: Paulo Desana/Dabakuri/Amazônia Real)

However, it is important to stress that Brazilian indigenous people have never been better organised. This month APIBset up a large online National Assembly of Indigenous Resistance to address issues such the diagnosis of covid-19 in villages by region.

Indigenous people have been fighting for their rights for the last 520 years, so they are used to it. They are coming together to find new ways to demand better health care provision, and defend their lands and the environment.


Rosa Gauditano is a photographer, journalist and activist. She has documented indigenous people of the most varied ethnicities and regions in Brazil for over 30 years. Rosa has already documented the Karajá, Kayapó,Tucano, Waurá, Yanomami, Xavante, Guarani and Pankarau ethnic groups.

In 2004, in partnership with the Xavante ethnic group, she created Nossa Tribo (Our Tribe), an NGO whose aim is to build bridge between cities to indigenous villages. She taught photography at PUC (Catholic University of São Paulo) and worked for the Folha de São Paulo newspaper and Veja.  

You can contact the author at studior@studiorimagens.com.br



This article was originally published by BrasilWire here. Please follow this link for more information about how you can support the organisations involved.



[1] National Institute for Settlement and Agrarian Reform

[2] In 2017, the parliamentary enquiry presided by the Farmers’ Caucus aimed to prosecute anthropologists, indigenous people, Funai and Incra officials and members of the executive, as well as NGOs. The idea was to close Funai, stop agrarian reform and change the criteria for land demarcation for indigenous people and former slave communities (quilombola).

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