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Amazon indigenous leader: Our survival is at stake. You can help (commentary)

Amazon indigenous leader: Our survival is at stake. You can help (commentary)

  • Beto Marubo, a representative of the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley, warns that indigenous peoples in the Amazon face existential threats from rising deforestation, anti-environment and anti-indigenous policies from the Bolsonaro administration, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Marubo, whose indigenous name is Wino Këyashëni, is calling upon the outside world to pressure the Bolsonaro administration to protect indigenous peoples’ rights, lands, and livelihoods.
  • He’s asking for (1) the Brazilian government to evict land invaders from indigenous territories, (2) restrictions on outsiders’ access to indigenous lands, and (3) logistical and medical support.
  • This article is a commentary and does not necessarily reflect the views of Mongabay.

I used my Brazilian name above, but in my community, I am known as Wino Këyashëni. I belong to the Marubo people, one of the seven ethnic groups that inhabit the Vale do Javari Indigenous Land in the western end of the state of Amazonas. Our land is home to the world’s largest number of groups of uncontacted indigenous people.

On behalf of all of my brothers and sisters here, I beg you to help us protect ourselves from the new coronavirus. If we don’t raise the alarm now, our peoples and cultures could disappear from the planet.

In the mid-1970s, the Brazilian government determined that the uncontacted Matis people, one of the other groups that shares this indigenous territory, were “an obstacle to development” and began constructing a federal road through their communities. The team responsible for the work infected the Matis with the flu. In weeks, more than three quarters of the Matis died. Eyewitness reports describe children trying to breastfeed on the bodies of mothers who died days before.

The Javari river as it forms a border between Peru and Brazil. Courtesy of Google Earth.
The Javari river as it forms a border between Peru and Brazil. Courtesy of Google Earth.

Today, we do not have any confirmed cases of Covid-19 in our territory, but I fear it’s just a matter of days before we do. There are confirmed cases in the neighboring cities of Atalaia do Norte, Benjamin Constant, Tabatinga, and Cruzeiro do Sul. And there are now 222 confirmed cases and 19 confirmed deaths in other remote indigenous territories in Brazil. Many of us are well informed about the virus and are taking measures to protect ourselves and our loved ones, including social distancing in our villages, taking extra sanitary precautions for our elders, and in some cases fleeing to remote hunting camps on our ancestral lands. Even so, I fear that the virus could sweep across our territories like wildfire.

The new coronavirus first reached Brazil almost two months ago, but indigenous peoples are still not on the radar for support from our national government or any of its relevant agencies, such as the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI). We need international pressure on the Bolsonaro government to strengthen FUNAI’s hand and start executing emergency plans for our territories immediately.

First, we need international pressure to remove all invaders from our lands. Some the invaders are miners, loggers, poachers, and organized crime figures who are entering our territories illegally to steal our resources. These invaders bring not only the virus but also environmental destruction that should worry every citizen of our warming planet. Even as carbon emissions are down globally as a result of the crisis, satellite data confirm that deforestation of the Amazon is continuing at the fastest rate ever seen.

Brazilian government data show deforestation has reached the highest level in at least 13 years.
Brazilian government data show deforestation has reached the highest level in at least 13 years.

The other invaders are missionaries, many of them from countries with explosive COVID outbreaks, who see uncontacted indigenous peoples as prizes rather than human beings with their own rich worldview and culture. We recently learned that the nonprofit Ethnos 360 purchased a helicopter for its Brazilian subsidiary Missão Novas Tribos do Brasil (Brazilian New Tribes Mission) to use for reaching tribes in our territory. In addition, missionaries of Asas do Socorro and Frontier International Mission have already been caught several times within indigenous lands, and the Matis picked up the North American missionary Andrew Tonkin in an area that’s home to several isolated indigenous tribes. Under our President Jair Bolsonaro, who has shown nothing but contempt for indigenous peoplesBrazilian authorities simply look the other way. It would greatly help if the World Health Organization were to declare the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, especially the isolated ones, as extremely vulnerable.

Second, we need international pressure for protecting our territorial boundaries in other ways. We need help enforcing the closure of indigenous land to all unauthorized people (not just exploiters and proselytizers); stopping the flow of indigenous peoples between cities and villages; and requiring all people who must enter the indigenous land to be quarantined.

Yanomami community in northern Brazil saying ‘Go away, mining companies’. Image by Victor Moriyama/ISA.
Yanomami community in northern Brazil saying ‘Go away, mining companies’. Image by Victor Moriyama/ISA.

Third, we need logistical and medical support. Specifically, we need help:

  • securing personal protective equipment (we have almost none for our indigenous health providers or anyone else)
  • providing food for vulnerable indigenous people who live outside the indigenous territories
  • breaking down bureaucratic and logical barriers so we can acquire speedboats with powerful engines as well as helicopter flight hours for carrying freight to the most remote areas
  • extending the reach of our radio and satellite telephony, so we can reach everyone in our territories with health messages
  • setting up a field hospital in Atalaia do Norte and Tabatinga
  • securing rapid-testing kits that would allow us to obtain a sampling of the pandemic in indigenous villages near Atalaia do Norte.

We’re sending out an S.O.S. to all those who will listen—and especially to those who are in a position to put pressure on our government to protect Brazil’s original inhabitants from this novel threat. We don’t usually ask for outside help. But in this time of coronavirus, we won’t survive without it.

Uncontacted indigenous group in the Amazon photographed by authorities with the Brazilian Indian affairs agency FUNAI. Photo by Gleison Miranda-FUNAI.
Uncontacted indigenous group in the Terra Indigena Kampa e Isolados do Envira, Acre state, Brazil, near the border with Peru, in 2008. The Brazilian Indian affairs agency FUNAI released these photos to highlight threats to this group of voluntarily isolated peoples from illegal loggers, miners, and drug traffickers. Photo by Gleison Miranda-FUNAI.

Header image: Uncontacted indigenous group in the Terra Indigena Kampa e Isolados do Envira, Acre state, Brazil, near the border with Peru, in 2008. The Brazilian Indian affairs agency FUNAI released these photos to highlight threats to this group of voluntarily isolated peoples from illegal loggers, miners, and drug traffickers. Photo by Gleison Miranda-FUNAI.

Beto Marubo is representative of the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley and formerly served in FUNAI, Brazil’s governmental agency for indigenous people.

Editor’s note: shortly after publication, we corrected the number of COVID cases and deaths among indigenous peoples in Brazil, which increased significantly between submission and publication.

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