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  • Rich D'Amaru

Hope and care against the Covid-19: The persistent struggle of indigenous peoples in the Amazon

by Thiago Cardoso

An Indigenous woman wearing a face mask that reads, "Indigenous lives matter", during the funeral of Chief Messias Kokama, 53, from the Parque das Tribos (Tribes Park), who died after contracting the coronavirus at Parque das Tribos in Manaus, Brazil [Bruno Kelly/Reuters]

As I was writing this text, I received the terrible news of the death of the Kumu-Shaman Higino Tuyuka, one of the great teachers and indigenous intellectuals of the Rio Negro in the Amazon. I had the pleasure of meeting Higino and learn from his words and get inspiration to work in the field of indigenous education, where he was a specialist. We will miss this great man who through his words made us perceive other stories about the world. In terms of wisdom, the world has suffered a great loss.

Before the death of this great teacher we were mourning the loss of other great masters of different peoples such as the Munduruku, Kayapó, and Tukano struck by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon - COIAB, the 14th of June, 78 indigenous peoples have been affected by Covid-19, with more than 3,600 infected individuals and 249 deaths. Higino's name has not yet been included in those terrible numbers.

In Brazil, according to data compiled by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the main indigenous movement in the country, deaths from the pandemic in indigenous communities have increased from 46, on the 1st of May, to 262, on the 9th of June. In the Amazon region, the mortality rate per 100 thousand inhabitants among indigenous people is 150% higher than the national average, according to unpublished data from a COIAB study.

We must keep in mind that phenomena such as the Covid-19 pandemic are historically known by indigenous peoples. From the time of colonization to the republic, the Amerindians have suffered from the ecological imperialism of the invaders with countless epidemic outbreaks, attacks of viral, bacteria and other pathological agents that provoked a significant depopulation on the continent. This is nothing new, it is recorded in history, it is the dark shadow of the genocide that hangs over our lives in South America. Today, it is government health professionals, often in good faith but ill-trained and equipped, illegal gold miners, missionaries, loggers and other invaders who are among the main vectors of contamination in protected indigenous territories.

For example, according to Dario Kopenawa, vice president of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, an entity that represents the 26,000 indigenous inhabitants of the Yanomami territory, the biggest concern of his people now is that prospectors spread the disease to the communities, and will be responsible for contaminating the Yanomami. Hutukara joined a consortium of Brazilian and international cultural rights groups to launch a campaign entitled #ForaGarimpoForaCovid.

Campaign for petition to keep miners and other non-indigenous workers away from indigenous communities to prevent the spread of disease.

We must understand the pandemic among indigenous peoples in the Amazon not only as an epidemiological or biomedical problem, but also as a broader socio-environmental phenomenon that brings together political, socioeconomic, biological and cultural aspects.

Global trade dynamics and the movement of people in this great region not only transport figures, goods, subjects and ideas, but also genetic material, microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi and viruses. Dynamics that are causing worries in relation to the climatic emergency and the deforestation of the forest. It is in this sense that I would like to expand the idea of pandemic, understanding it as any form of contamination that interferes and impacts the bodies and lives of indigenous peoples and traditional communities in Amazon, of which Covid-19 is yet another serious manifestation. We are facing the genocide, and the situation is extremely difficult.

With the coronavirus spreading to remote territories in the Brazilian Amazon, indigenous leaders and human rights officials are begging the Brazilian government to take urgent measures to prevent a catastrophe, but their requests have little effect on a government that is openly anti-indigenous and negationist.

But from mourning comes the struggle. The indigenous peoples are not standing still, they are fighting against the spread of contamination. In the beginning of the pandemic, several indigenous groups acted quickly to contain the spread of the coronavirus, they isolated themselves in distant villages, erected sanitary barriers preventing the circulation of strangers, interdicted roads and rivers, sewed masks and asked members of villages to remain in their villages. Each with its own way of creating protection.

“There is an incredible risk that the virus will spread through communities and cause genocide,” says Sao Paulo Federal University (UNIFESP) researcher Sofia Mendonca. Dr. Mendoca is the coordinator of Xingu, a health promotion project that UNIFESP has been carrying out in the Xingu river basin (in the states of Mato Grosso and Para) for 50 years Photo: Hello Carlos Mello/ Projeto Xingu

Financial resources, sanitary equipment and food are being obtained through campaigns developed in self-organization, solidarity processes together with non-governmental organizations, support groups and universities. These are some of the measures adopted by the various indigenous organizations and by the hundreds of communities spread across the Amazon. They thus seek self-care with others and fill the lack of actions by an inept and irresponsible government.

Strategies for using online tools are being useful to inform the population, through social networks and web-series such as “We are many peoples against #Covid19” (“Somos muitos povos contra a #Covid19”), which addresses the situation of the pandemic through testimonies from various indigenous leaders of the Brazilian Amazon and the struggle of each people in facing a new disease.

In a conversation I had with my friend and colleague at the Federal University of Amazonas, Professor Gilton Mendes dos Santos, he drew my attention to the fact that indigenous peoples have developed strategies in the face of epidemics that can be revisited, recognized and made explicit, but they also teach us a different point of view about illness and death.

It was in order to highlight the Amazonian point of view about the pandemic that a group of indigenous researchers from our university created the initiative “Map of the Pandemic in the Amazon”, with incredible texts on the ways in which their peoples think in relation to the meaning of the body, well-being, protection, health and oral reports on how they have experienced and perceived the pandemic from their health condition.

The texts, illustrated with the splendid drawings of Jaime Diakara, teach us traditional practices of protecting both people and environments, places, spaces of social life. One of the practices is the use of certain elements of the forest by the shamans for protection, and another, the use of basese, known as blessings. These are two very important practices for Tukano-speaking groups in the upper Rio Negro region and have been adopted in the face of the pandemic . Such an initiative shows us that these peoples have different conceptions of the pandemic, but without denying biomedical knowledge.

It is important to realize that the indigenous peoples who inhabit the Amazon are not being passive victims of pandemic contamination in its biomedical and socioeconomic dimensions, but are tireless agents in the care, protection and search for the cure of this feral virus that has taken so many lives. Across the Amazon, many male and female teachers, shamans and masters are currently thinking and teaching about the pandemic and activating their healing repertoires. They are following the steps and wisdom left by Higino Tuyuka and so many other masters.

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