The Struggle of Indigenous People in Brazil to Survive COVID-19

Vandson Galdino (Legal Counsel for the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform in Brazil)

Indigenous peoples in Brazil face unique challenges in the COVID-19 pandemic. The unstable politics, the collapse of the public health system, and a lack of an efficient strategic plan to fight the deadly virus threaten the traditional communities’ existence. According to the Association of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the coronavirus has infected more than 50,000 indigenous peoples. To date, almost 1,000 indigenous people from 163 traditional communities have died of COVID-19 in Brazil. The coronavirus has been primarily transmitted to these indigenous communities—especially those deeply isolated in the Amazon Forest regions—through travelers such as land invaders, army officers, and physicians.

Research has demonstrated that concentrated coronavirus cases in south Brazil lay siege to indigenous territories, posing a devastating risk for the indigenous communities. In February 2021, the last male member of the Juma tribe died of COVID-19, erasing the collective memory of his people from the world. In addition to threatening the lives of thousands of indigenous peoples, COVID-19 endangers cultural and centenary rituals. In traditional communities, the elderly are responsible for transferring the indigenous practices and traditions to children, while young adults collect food to ensure their survival. Unfortunately, the elderly are more vulnerable to severe complications of COVID-19 infection. Moreover, generally, indigenous people are more susceptible to viral infection for various social and biological reasons, including historical inequalities and a lack of immunological protection4. As a consequence, the pandemic can eliminate tribal traditions long-held by the Brazilian indigenous communities.

The APIB, together with six other political parties, filed a petition to the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court (STF) to grant indigenous peoples the right to live and persevere. The judicial case sought to facilitate Brazil’s federal government measures to protect and promote indigenous people’s health by implementing a Sanitary Barriers Plan that prevents infection. After assessing the case, the Court ruled that the federal government failed to protect the indigenous communities against coronavirus. To avoid extinction of indigenous culture, the Court ordered a provisional measure which requires the government to build sanitary barriers, extract invaders from indigenous lands, and present a strategic plan to fight COVID-19. Subsequently, the Brazilian government has proposed a strategic plan three times. However, the Court rejected all because the proposed plans inadequately assessed feasibility and implementation and were considered insufficient and generic.

Unable to entirely rely on the government, APIB and social organizations developed an emergency plan to coordinate international, regional and local efforts to tackle the pandemic. On the 46th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council, indigenous organizations submitted a formal complaint to the United Nations inter-governmental body, suggesting that the federal government leads an indigenous extermination policy. The claim goes in line with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) concerns about the indigenous population’s survival. The WHO stresses that “indigenous peoples often have a high burden of poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and both communicable and non-communicable diseases, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19 and its severe outcomes” (see other concerns regarding Latin America’s indigenous population in).

In January 2021, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) adopted Resolution 1/2021, favouring the Guajajara and Awá indigenous peoples of the Araribóia Indigenous Land in Brazil’s northeast. The Commission considered that the Brazilian government has not taken effective action to protect indigenous peoples in that territory. It requested Brazil to adopt the necessary measures to protect the rights to health, life, and personal integrity of the members of the Guajajara and Awá Indigenous, implementing, from a culturally appropriate perspective, preventive measures against the spread of COVID-19.

Together, the decisions of the Commission and Brazil’s Supreme Court demonstrate the gravity of the situation. They also show how Brazilian indigenous people have been taking action to ensure their right to live. Thus, the struggle for indigenous people’s survival continues to be a relevant concern in Brazil because of the threat of tribal extinction. Ensuring the survival of the traditional populations of Brazil calls for immediate and urgent government intervention to prevent the coronavirus from spreading in Brazilian indigenous communities.



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