Brazil’s uncontacted tribes in peril from the COVID-19 crisis
The Javari Valley in the Brazilian state of Amazonas is home to an estimated nineteen uncontacted tribes, more than any other territory on Earth. There are also seven contacted tribes who live in the reserve, including the Matsés, the Matis, and the Marubo, who are related to some uncontacted groups and can understand their languages.
Uncontacted tribes have no resistance to common diseases like flu or measles, let alone coronavirus. They are the most vulnerable peoples on the planet; it is not uncommon for over 50% of the population to die of illnesses contracted from first contact.
Once a single member of a tribe is exposed to a new disease is it is likely to spread quickly through their population because so much of their life is communal. Not only would these tribes share food and eat together, but a whole village may sleep in close quarters in a shared house.
There are three possible ways that coronavirus could reach uncontacted tribes like those in the Javari Valley:
i) A member of one of the contacted communities contracts the disease outside the reserve and brings it back to their home, from which it spreads. Because the contacted communities encounter their uncontacted neighbors so rarely, thankfully transmission of the virus is unlikely to happen this way.
ii) Oil company workers, loggers, wildcat miners, ranchers, land-grabbers and drug traffickers often target the areas where uncontacted tribes live. In the past such groups have introduced diseases like malaria and measles; coronavirus is now high on the list of potential dangers.
iii) There has been an upsurge in missionary activity in Brazil. In February 2020, an evangelical missionary was appointed to head the unit for uncontacted tribes in FUNAI, the federal Indigenous Affairs Department, and in the past few weeks, several missionaries have reportedly taken steps towards making contact with uncontacted tribes.
iv) Many in Bolsonaro’s administration are in favor of forced contact. The pandemic could be used as an excuse to contact uncontacted people, under the false claim that this is for the tribes’ own safety.
To be clear, absolutely the safest thing for uncontacted tribes is if everyone stays away from them. Twenty indigenous organizations, and allies from seven countries in South America, have released a statement which says:
“Global society is now experiencing “involuntary isolation” from the Pandemic… People in isolation and initial contact have been experiencing this situation of vulnerability for centuries and, at this moment, we can understand at least one of the reasons that leads them to exercise their self-determination by isolating themselves and not accepting any type of contact with people outside their group. This “geographical isolation” is a protective measure that guarantees their survival.”
But in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, their isolation is anything but guaranteed.
Bolsonaro’s response to coronavirus endangers everyone in Brazil
He has dismissed coronavirus as “just a little flu” or “a bit of a cold” and threatened to sack his health minister for telling the truth about the disease. His personal conduct during the crisis has been a model of exactly what not to do: he has continued to meet and greet citizens and go to crowded places despite having been in contact with infected people himself. Social media networks have removed some of his posts for spreading false information and dangerous attacks on social distancing measures.
Since coming to power in 2019, Bolsonaro has done his best to weaken rights and protections for indigenous peoples with the aim of forcing them to “integrate” and opening up their land for resource extraction and agriculture. Fuelled by the president’s anti-indigenous and pro-business rhetoric, invasions of indigenous territories have increased. This not only leads to more violence and environmental destruction, it also makes the transmission of disease more likely.
There is also concern that illegal loggers, miners and ranchers may be gearing up to exploit the coronavirus crisis, using the social chaos, reduced manpower, and diversion of government resources elsewhere to double down on their efforts to seize indigenous land and encroach deeper into the territories of vulnerable communities and uncontacted tribes.
Bolsonaro has significantly weakened indigenous health services.
A programme called Mais Médicos (More Doctors) brought hundreds of Cuban doctors into remote parts of Brazil. In 2018, 301 out of 372 doctors working within indigenous communities were Cuban. Bolsonaro, who was scathing of this initiative even before he was elected, made sweeping changes to the program which angered the Cuban government and led to them recalling all their doctors.
Not only is there a lack of medical staff on the ground, but Bolsonaro has also slashed the budgets of the indigenous health service such that it no longer has sufficient funds to provide transport by boat or air in emergencies. Many indigenous communities live in remote regions with limited or no access by road. If the virus reaches these people, they will not have access to doctors, coronavirus testing facilities, ventilators, protective gear, and other vital equipment. “We feel very vulnerable,” said Dinaman Tuxá, a lawyer and member of the executive council of the Coordinating Body of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB).
Due to the communal lifestyles of many indigenous villages, once the virus arrives, it is likely to spread fast. “In our culture, everyone lives in the same house — grandchildren, nieces and nephews, in-laws,” Mydjere Kayapó from the Baú Indigenous Territory in southwest Pará state told Repórter Brasil. “They [the indigenous health service] also aren’t providing medicinal alcohol and we haven’t the money to buy it.”
The threat of COVID-19 to uncontacted tribes
Since the invasion of the American continent by Europeans, introduced diseases have killed more indigenous people than anything else. According to some estimates, up to 90% of the indigenous populations of North and South America were wiped out by smallpox and other introduced diseases. To this day, the health of indigenous populations worldwide continues to suffer in myriad ways as a direct result of colonialism.
The health of contacted communities in Brazil’s Javari Valley is already extremely precarious and has been for many years. From 2000–2010, there were over 300 recorded deaths, which is around 8% of the estimated total population of the reserve. People there suffer diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, and hepatitis A, B, C and D, and there is little state healthcare available in this remote region. The Amazon breeds its own pathogens of course, but many tribes say they know how to treat native diseases, it is only those that have been introduced by outsiders that require help from doctors.
When free from outside threats, the evidence suggests that the isolated peoples of the Javari Valley keep themselves in excellent physical and mental health. A group of Korubo people were contacted by FUNAI in 1996 after they split off from a larger group and were heading towards armed loggers. Maria da Graça Nobre, a Brazilian nurse working with this recently-contacted Korubo group, says:
“The Korubo eat very well, with very little fat or sugar. Fish, wild pig, monkeys, birds and plenty of fruit, manioc and maize. They work hard and have a healthier diet than most Brazilians, so they have long lives and very good skin.”
Though there are some Korubo communities who remain uncontacted, the tribe is thought to number about 200 people. From 2000–2011, 15% of the recently contacted Korubo people died as a result of inadequate health care. Exposed to a new virus, the majority of them could die very fast, their health may never recover, or the tribe may even be wiped out altogether.
What happens to a tribe following first contact
The Matis of the Javari Valley had an estimated population of several hundred when they were contacted in 1978. Disease outbreaks rapidly killed many, and five years later, there were only 87 people left. As well as the heart-wrenching loss of so many of their loved ones, the Matis who survived lost other things too. They stopped practicing their ceremonies, neglected certain ways of life, and, like many indigenous people suffering from the trauma of first contact, they stopped having children.
The Matis have since started practicing some of their rituals again, and their population has grown. Nevertheless, a Matis man told Survival: “We are plagued with illnesses these days. Diarrhoea, malaria and other diseases like hepatitis. We didn’t have these diseases before. We stayed in good health. We might get a headache, but we had plant remedies. But after contact, it has changed. Now everybody is constantly sick.”
How Brazil’s indigenous peoples are protecting themselves against COVID-19
Last week, it was reported that a man from the Marubo tribe from the Javari Valley was showing symptoms of coronavirus. The local municipal authority reported that he was tested and that the results had come back negative, but a journalist subsequently discovered that in fact no such test had been performed. The health department admitted there had been a “communication error.”
Indigenous communities with limited access to medical care are mostly reliant on pre-emptive measures to keep themselves safe. Some organizations have created advice videos and instructions, and some families or whole communities, such as the Awá people, have gone into self-isolation in the forest. Many groups have erected blockades or signs indicating their territory is under lockdown.
But Tupinambá leaders from Bahia state in Brazil have told Survival International that a local mayor has threatened police action against them after they blockaded the entrance to their community. This was an attempt to protect themselves from coronavirus, which has reached a nearby city. The Tupinambá now fear violent conflict, and there may well be other communities around Brazil facing similar threats.
Despite indigenous peoples’ best efforts, the real danger comes from factors beyond their control. Claudette Labonte, from the Congress of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) said:
“Indigenous people living in voluntary isolation are especially vulnerable to infectious disease as they don’t have any immunity at all against most diseases. We call on governments to intensify surveillance and protection of indigenous territories, many of which are invaded by miners, drug traffickers, loggers, land-grabbers and tourists.”
Silent genocides: Land invasions could wipe out uncontacted peoples
There is no question whose side Jair Bolsonaro is on. He once said: “There is no indigenous territory where there aren’t minerals. Gold, tin and magnesium are in these lands, especially in the Amazon, the richest area in the world. I’m not getting into this nonsense of defending land for Indians.”
The Javari Valley is targeted by poachers, drug traffickers, loggers and wildcat miners. Aside from the threat of infections, the more ruthless among these invaders have been known to simply murder any isolated people they encounter. Indigenous peoples are frequently regarded as obstacles to the advance of agribusiness, extractive industries, roads and dams. As more rainforest is invaded in the name of economic “progress” and personal profit, uncontacted tribes become targets. These are silent, invisible genocides, with few if any witnesses. The news often only emerges months, if not years, later.
Indigenous leaders in the Javari valley have been receiving death threats and other gruesome warnings. A FUNAI post in the area, established to protect the Korubo, was attacked by armed invaders four times in 2019. A FUNAI worker from this same post was assassinated in the regional town of Tabatinga last September.
Fear of genocidal invasions is compounded by the fact that efforts to fight environmental crimes will be scaled down during the coronavirus outbreak. Already struggling to effectively combat the scale of existing crime, there will now be even less protection in these key areas. The director of environmental protection at Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama, said he had no choice but to send fewer agents into the field in order to protect his staff from the virus, as approximately one third of enforcement staff are aged over 60 or have pre-existing medical conditions.
When uncontacted tribes’ land is properly protected, this proves to be the best and most cost-effective barrier to deforestation in the Amazon. As long as indigenous peoples live on their land, those who want to exploit its resources for profit will never be able to do so legally; the land will be protected as long as the tribes live. If the indigenous people are wiped out by violence or disease, as well as the horrific human cost, the future of the Amazon rainforest is also endangered.
FUNAI will also see a reduction in its own manpower during the pandemic for similar reasons. Already under strain, the agency has been deliberately crippled by Bolsonaro. According to Beto Marubo, a leader and activist from the Javari Valley: “The Brazilian government has weakened FUNAI, indigenous lands are no longer properly protected.”
Missionaries are seeking out uncontacted tribes
Twice as many evangelicals voted for Bolsonaro than for his nearest rival in 2018. He has since appointed evangelicals to positions of considerable political power in the Brazilian government and Congress. Under his presidency, an increasing number of missionaries of various denominations have been attempting to force contact on uncontacted tribes.
A member of the Baptist Bible Fellowship International is being investigated by the authorities in Brazil for entering the territory of the uncontacted Hi-Merimã in 2019. He and his guides had gone into abandoned camps and according to FUNAI “put the lives of an entire uncontacted tribe at risk.” This risk increases amid a pandemic of a new, highly contagious, and potentially lethal virus.
The evangelical missionary who Bolsonaro appointed to head the unit for uncontacted tribes, Ricardo Lopes Dias, himself worked as a missionary in the Javari Valley from 1997–2007 and actively attempted to convert indigenous communities. He was working for an organization called the New Tribes Mission (NTM, now “rebranded’ as Ethnos360), one of the largest and most extreme missionary organizations on Earth whose objective is to contact and evangelize all uncontacted peoples on the planet.
For over 30 years now, a key part of FUNAI’s role has been to protect isolated indigenous peoples from unwanted contact, though it hasn’t always been this way. Brazil’s government policy prior to 1988 was to force contact with uncontacted tribes to clear the way for large scale “development” projects. But the huge number of fatalities that occurred in every instance led the government to change their policy in that year. FUNAI learned in that period that no matter what precautions were taken, they could not prevent catastrophic deaths from diseases inevitably contracted from first contact.
Sydney Possuelo, former head of Brazil’s Uncontacted Indians Department, has led more first contact expeditions than anyone else on the planet. He says:
“I believed it’d be possible to make contact with no pain or deaths. I prepared everything… I set up a system with doctors and nurses. I stocked with medicines to combat the epidemics which always follow. I had vehicles, a helicopter, radios and experienced personnel. ‘I won’t let a single Indian die,’ I thought. And the contact came, the diseases arrived, the Indians died.”
The NTM is keen to overturn Brazil’s policy of no contact and lobbied the government to appoint Ricardo Lopes Dias. The organisation has already bought a new helicopter and says: “This new helicopter flight program will enable Ethnos360 Aviation to serve all our current missionaries in the region and open the door to reach ten additional people groups living in extreme isolation.” Indigenous leaders in the Javari Valley have denounced the NTM’s plans as “a genocidal onslaught.”
It’s not only the NTM. Reports recently emerged that Andrew Tonkin, from North Carolina, USA, a missionary of the Baptist group Frontier International, has been actively laying plans to contact isolated peoples in the Javari Valley. Lucas Marubo, head of the Marubo Villages Organization of Rio Ituí (OAMI), told Mongabay:
“We heard that he was having meetings, preparing to try to go in again, that he was buying supplies. They are armed, have drones and GPS… a bunch of equipment to make contact… this is our fear.”
Organisations like NTM don’t tend to let health concerns interrupt their quest for the souls of indigenous peoples. Survival researcher Luke Holland visited the NTM mission camp in Paraguay in 1979 and describes meeting an Ayoreo family who survived a manhunt: “All had symptoms of ‘flu and were constantly coughing. They had running eyes and were in a filthy condition. The old man, wasted and thin. His eyes half-closed. He lay on one side completely without animation. The girl, too, was lying down. The man with the pony-tail sat quietly, his face a tragic mask of resignation.”
Forced contact in the name of coronavirus
In mid-March, FUNAI issued a decree with rules on how to minimize coronavirus crises in indigenous communities. One of the decree’s clauses said that all activities which might imply contact with “isolated indigenous communities” must be suspended. If this term refers to uncontacted tribes then such activities should never have been taking place at all under Brazil’s longstanding policy of no contact. However, what is of greatest concern is that this guidance goes on to say that this rule can be broken if “the activity is essential for the survival of the group.”
The original decree stated that any such contact must be authorized by the local FUNAI office. According to Nara Baré, general coordinator of the Indigenous Organization of the Amazon COIAB, Bolsonaro’s administration has “made new appointments of heads of Regional Coordination, mainly in territories with isolated Indians. They have put military officers there and military officers obey orders.”
Survival International and others immediately expressed alarm that FUNAI’s decree could be used to force contact in the name of coronavirus. Following the outcry, the decree was amended so that the power to authorize contact can come only from the central Uncontacted Indians Department rather than the local branches. Nevertheless great concern remains: the man now in charge of the Uncontacted Indians Department is the evangelical missionary Ricardo Lopes Dias.
If coronavirus is used as a reason for forcing contact on uncontacted tribes then there is absolutely no question this move was not made with the tribes’ best interests at heart. The only way to keep uncontacted tribes safe is to protect their land, keep out invaders, missionaries, and indeed all other outsiders, and ultimately, respect their wishes to be left in peace.
Uncontacted people show us they want to be left alone
It’s not just about safety, it’s also a matter of consent; uncontacted people make it clear they do not want contact. They are well aware that other societies exist because they see aeroplanes flying overhead, find discarded goods and tools, hear other human activity in the area, and see its impact on their environment.
These people are avoiding interaction intentionally, undoubtedly because previous encounters with outsiders led to violence, disease and deaths, theft of their resources, and destruction of their land. These tribes will have collective memories of these tragedies, some very recent. Many are the descendents of survivors of the Amazon Rubber Boom around the turn of the century, but some will have suffered genocidal attacks mere decades ago, or perhaps even in more recent years.
Signs that they want to be left alone include leaving crossed spears on paths as a “no entry” sign, waving weapons, shooting arrows, or even just by running away and hiding from anyone they see or hear on their land.
When uncontacted peoples want to make contact, they do so, but the decision must be theirs, at a time and manner of their choosing. But those who’ve recently made contact, like the Sapanawa, have said that they had no other option; they were forced out of their forest to escape from loggers, miners, cattle ranchers, or other invaders of their land, who have often already killed many of their relatives.
Indigenous land must be protected
The vulnerability of uncontacted tribes to new infectious diseases is not news; what’s interesting is how the COVID-19 crisis has exposed this vulnerability in all of us. Those of us that are able to have moved into self-isolation to protect ourselves and our communities, which is what uncontacted tribes have been doing all along.
Coronavirus is a danger to every human population on Earth but it is one among many existential threats facing indigenous peoples in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. They are fighting to defend their land, their lives, and the lives of their uncontacted relatives.
News broke last week that Zezico Guajajara, an Amazon Guardian, has been shot dead, less than five months after the murder of another Guardian, Paulo Paulino Guajajara. Though the circumstances of Zezico’s death are still unclear at the time of writing, the Guardians have been mercilessly targeted by powerful logging mafias illegally exploiting the valuable hardwoods in the Arariboia indigenous territory, home to both the Guajajara people and uncontacted members of the Awá tribe.
Survival campaigner Sarah Shenker, who knew Zezico well, said: “Zezico was so full of energy, and fought fearlessly to protect the forest and improve his people’s lives. The loggers are desperate to get rid of the Guardians, targeting them one by one. While the world’s attention is focused on the coronavirus pandemic, indigenous people continue fighting on the front line to save the world’s forests for their families, for uncontacted tribes, and for all humanity. They need people everywhere to support them now more than ever.”
Survival International is the only organization fighting worldwide for the protection of uncontacted tribes. For 50 years, we have been fighting alongside Brazil’s indigenous peoples to defend their lives and lands.