What will COVID-19 mean for rural tribes?

Photo courtesy of Stiven Gaviria

Increasing international pressure is currently being put on Brazilian far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, to protect indigenous communities and tribes within the Amazon from COVID-19, which could potentially mean genocide for isolated groups and tribes of the Amazon.

On April 11, a 15-year old Yanomami teenager, Alvanei Xirixana, died from contracting the virus. Whilst his community is based in a remote part of the Amazon and have little contact with the outside world, this particular community is known for being attractive to miners and loggers, who’s encampments encroach into indigenous territory. The nearest city, Manaus, has been worst hit by Coronavirus. Following the death of Xirixana, the community have been pleading with officials to expel outsiders from their region, since they suspect that he had contracted the disease from wildcat miners.

In response to the death, the Hutukara Yanomami Association wrote an open letter on March 19 to federal health and indigenous affairs officials, stating:

“You should do your work to avoid the penetration of the epidemic into our homes along the pathways opened by the non-indigenous invaders.”

During the 1950s and 1960s a group of Yanomami tribes people living near the Venezuelan border were almost entirely wiped out by measles and other diseases brought in from outsiders. Since then, policy has been put in place in order to protect them from diseases that can come from outsiders. Yet little has been done on the ground to protect these tribes amid a global health pandemic. For Bolsonaro’s case, a pandemic appears to be a convenient way to further open the Amazon up to land grabbers.

After COVID-19 broke out, a historical court case was won by an indigenous community in Brazil’s Vale do Javari, one of the largest homes to indigenous and tribal communities living within the Amazon, to ban all missionary access to the region. The lawsuit was fought against Brazil’s most notorious evangelical group. Their mission: to convert all tribes on earth to the word of God. Whilst the virus was in its early stages, Bolsonaro granted access for these missionaries to fly a helicopter into the region and make contact. This would have been a death warrant to some of the last remaining uncontacted tribes on earth.

This court case marks the first indigenous victory without the assistance of a federal prosecutor of government agencies in history. Whilst the entire world is in a law-enforced lockdown and unable to leave their homes (unless for necessary travel), some of the most vulnerable groups on earth have been forced to secure their right to self-isolation through court warrants. And despite their hard efforts, their demands have not yet been granted due to the threat of miners and loggers.

An opportunity for loggers

With many indigenous leaders in voluntary self-isolation, they have been unable to roam the forests to spot any illicit logging activity. A Manoki Indigenous leader in Mato Grosso state, told Amnesty International that patrols conducted jointly with IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) in February had found new paths into their territory and signs recently put up to mark out new plots of land. He reported;

“We have suspended our monitoring. We had one inspection planned for April but we cancelled” since it was reported that “one-third of Ibama’s feld operatives are close to 60-years-old and have medical conditions that put them at greater risk for severe symptoms of the virus.”

“Karipuna People said tribal members watched helplessly from the distance as the outsiders brazenly cleared land within the boundaries of their territory.”

Since funding towards environment protection has been cut over the last few years, there hasn’t been any other opportunities to hire any new operatives. In other parts of the Amazon, it has been reported that Karipuna People in the Rondônia district have seen a dramatic escalation in logging since the outbreak.

The Indigenous Association of the Karipuna People have reported that tribal members “watched helplessly from the distance as outsiders brazenly cleared land within the boundaries of their territory.

the next pandemic may come from the amazon

Photo courtesy of Roya Ann Miller

Since this time last year, there has been a 70% increase in the destruction of the Amazon due to Bolsonaro’s policies according to INPE (Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research). At the same time, scientists predict that the next outbreak of disease could originate from the destruction of the Amazon and ‘economically altered landscapes’ which refers to the establishment of monocultures, which harbours the perfect environment for parasites, pests and airborne diseases such as Malaria.

There is a direct correlation between encroaching on natural habitats and the spread of infectious diseases. An estimated 60% of known infectious diseases and up to 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in origin. By forcing animals to come into contact with humans, and farm animals, we are opening ourselves up to pathogens and micro-bacterias that could be more fatal than what we are currently witnessing with COVID-19.

This pandemic comes as a direct consequence of humanity’s lack of connection with the natural world. Indigenous traditions have been warning us for hundreds of years about the consequences of our actions. They hold the belief that the natural world and spiritual one are unified, all living beings, including plants, have a spirit. If these spirits are disrespected, they will leave and there will be no protection from illness and disease.

It is not a coincidence, that out of the 70 countries around the world that indigenous people claim as their home are some of the worlds richest biodiversity hotspots. This deep and profound respect has been increasingly more acknowledged by conservationists who are now understanding the global role that these communities play in stewarding some of the last remaining primary rainforest on the planet.


Stand with our forest Gaurdian’s and sign this petition, which calls to protect indigenous people in the Amazon from Covid.

Support @IfNotUsThenWho, a charity which supports the recognition of indigenous people as climate change activists. Their recent campaign is raising money to buy food, medicine and hygiene material for all the villages they are currently working with.

Check out RAIN (Regenerative Agroforestry Impact Network), who are currently building and connecting local-based reforestation projects to revive dried-up streams and loss of ecosystems through the use of local knowledge.

Support Survival International, who are a charity that support indigenous and tribal communities around the world.

This is a critical time. Please share widely and if you can, give generously.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s