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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Brazil continues to lose an entire generation of Indigenous leaders to COVID-19

This article originally appeared on Mongabay.

By Jennifer Ann Thomas

With scant support from the federal government, Indigenous Brazilians are taking matters in their own hands when it comes to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. For many of these communities, however, decimated by centuries of massacre and disease, the avoidable deaths of the few remaining elders mean an incalculable loss of culture and cultural memory. Aruká Juma, the last elder of his Juma people, died from COVID-19 in February after being treated with a cocktail of drugs promoted by the president but not proven to be effective against the illness. Decades of inadequate health care for Indigenous communities have also left them with comorbidities that make them particularly susceptible to death from COVID-19.

Oral tradition is one of the main means of transmitting knowledge between generations in Indigenous society. The elders know the specific songs for each of life’s milestones, like death, marriage, and the first harvest. They also remember and share myths about forest animals, and battles fought between their ancestors and enemy warriors. In a certain way, the collective memory is how Indigenous peoples record their own histories.

Aruká Juma was one of the few remaining Juma people and lived in the village of Canutama in Brazil’s Amazonas state. Estimated to be around 90 years old, Aruká was one of the few survivors of a massacre in which his people were decimated in the 1960s. On Feb. 17 this year, he became another name on the list, more than 500,000 names long today, of the people lost to COVID-19 in Brazil.

Wesley dos Santos, a doctoral student in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, specializes in the Kagwahiva tongue spoken by the Juma and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people. He told Mongabay in an interview that the death of an elder like Aruká is like losing a piece of the puzzle that reconstructs the history of how Brazil’s original people came into being.

“It is a pity that we no longer have Aruká’s presence to help us understand the past,” Dos Santos said. “When a community begins to lose its verbal culture, it becomes impossible to document many things.”

Aruká was hospitalized in the first half of January and given a cocktail of drugs: azithromycin, ivermectin, nitazoxanide and zinc sulfate, according to a report by Amazônia Real. None of these drugs have been proven effective in the treatment of COVID-19 and are part of the “early treatment” advocated by President Jair Bolsonaro. Aruká left behind three Juma daughters married to Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau men, as well as 14 grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and one daughter from a relationship with an Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau woman.

There have been 54,622 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Indigenous people in Brazil, according to monitoring by the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a Brazilian NGO that advocates for Indigenous and environmental rights. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 1,087 Indigenous people have died from the virus and 163 native groups have been affected, according to the ISA platform. There were nearly 818,000 Indigenous people in Brazil in 2010, according to the national census that year. There haven’t been any updates in the decade since, with the next census set for 2022.

Meanwhile, data from the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the country’s biggest Indigenous organization, reported that in December of last year the mortality rate among Indigenous people was 16% higher than among non-Indigenous Brazilians. In its report, “COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples,” APIB said that “We have lost our elders who kept and shared the memories of our ancestry, the guardians of our knowledge, of our songs, our prayers, and our spirituality.”

Access to the Juma village where Aruká lived, on the Trans-Amazonian Highway in the municipality of Canutama, Amazonas state. Image by Odair Leal/Amazônia Real.

Indigenous people stand alone

In August 2020, 64-year-old BepTok Xikrin from the Trincheira Bacajá Indigenous Territory was the first person in the Middle Xingu River Basin to die of COVID-19.

“The avoidable deaths of people like BepTok Xikrin weigh heavily on our irresponsible and predatory footprint in the world,” said Thaís Mantovanelli, an anthropologist from the ISA and researcher at São Carlos Federal University (UFSCar). Known as Chief Onça, BepTok Xikrin’s goal was to teach non-Indigenous people about Indigenous cultural principles based on generosity.

According to Mantovanelli, the federal government’s actions when it came to addressing the impact of the pandemic on Indigenous communities were based on a policy of denial over its seriousness, and as such lacked the means to confront it.

“The current administration under Jair Bolsonaro did not adopt effective measures to combat the pandemic among Indigenous peoples and traditional communities,” she said. She added that the policy worked against what was necessary: lack of action to protect these communities’ traditional territories caused a huge increase in trespassing, illegal exploitation of natural resources and land grabbing by outsiders. These factors led to increased exposure to the virus and, as a result, to the infection and deaths of hundreds of people.

At the same time, there has been a legacy of neglect in basic health care and rights for Indigenous people; the colonization of Brazil was marked by physical and biological violence. According to Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, the Indigenous population of the country in the year 1500 was around 3 million. By 1650, it had fallen to 700,000; by 1957, it was just 70,000. Outbreaks of measles and smallpox, diseases that hadn’t existed prior to the arrival of Europeans, were the first epidemics to spread through entire villages.

Toya Manchineri, the area coordinator of territory and natural resources for the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), said measures to protect groups with few individuals should be taken not only by the community itself, but also by academia and the state.

“The fact that so few Indigenous people have survived is because of the state, which has always ignored Indigenous issues,” Manchineri said. “Indigenous people have always been on their own, their land invaded and facing health complications while continually dropping in numbers.”

Aside from the loss of leaders, the pandemic has disrupted the continuity of rituals and traditions.

“Many leaders who fought to gain their territory back died from this illness right when their places were being consolidated. They couldn’t be buried in the way that the culture needed them to be buried,” Manchineri said, adding that the nation as a whole has suffered a loss.

“We are a wealthy nation not only because of our biodiversity, but also because of our cultures and languages. We speak 181 languages in Brazil, including Portuguese.”

Children play in an offshoot of the Assuã River in the Juma village. They have lost their elder and, with him, an irreplaceable part of their people’s memory. Image by Odair Leal/Amazônia Real.

Historical resistance

Because he was his people’s last surviving elder, Aruká Juma’s death raised concerns about the possibility that his people could disappear completely. But the surviving Juma don’t see it the same way, according to language scholar Dos Santos.

“By this logic, they would already have been exterminated after the massacre in the 1960s because Aruká and the others who survived could no longer have children among themselves,” he said. “His daughters and grandchildren self-identify as Juma.”

Dos Santos said it’s understood that societies in the Amazon are composed of small groups of people. While this means greater cultural and linguistic diversity, it also means that any natural disaster could wipe out an entire community. Because of this, the death of an individual has a greater impact on these societies than it would within the context of the general population in Brazil. Dos Santos makes the analogy that, as one of the last remaining 18 or so Juma, Aruká’s death can be compared to the loss of some 20,000 people in a non-traditional community.

The scale of loss is particularly steep for the Terena people in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, who have been among the hardest-hit by the pandemic in Brazil. According to APIB, the Terena have suffered the third-highest number of deaths from COVID-19, with 61 victims. The highest toll has been among unidentified Indigenous peoples, with 427 victims, and the second-highest among the Xavante of Mato Grosso state, with 79 deaths.

Eriki Paiva Terena, a biologist and member of the Terena People’s Council, said governmental action fell short not only during the pandemic by long before then. “Most of the Indigenous people who were hospitalized and died of COVID-19 suffered from comorbidities like diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases — clear evidence of poor basic health services,” he said.

As the pandemic escalated, the community realized that it would not receive the help it needed to fight the virus. Tribal leaders and chiefs decided on their own to block off their territories and stop tourists visiting their villages. Eriki Paiva Terena gathered data on death rates to counter the underreporting in the official counts. “While the health system should have been counting cases, we were the ones who had to do it,” he said.

Together with mounting number of new infections day after day, the pandemic reopened unhealed historic wounds.

“The crisis made us more fragile and made it even more difficult for us to access public health care policy during the collapse of the health care system in Brazil,” Mantovanelli said. She added that guaranteeing special health care for Indigenous peoples is directly related to the adoption of effective measures to protect their territories. And that these, in turn, depend on changing the current model of predatory development.

According to Eriki Paiva Terena, the relationship between young people and the elders is well illustrated by the strength of a tree. The younger people are like the firm trunk of a beautiful tree, showing strength and connection, which is why they’re at the forefront of necessary conflicts, he said. The elders are the roots that keep the trees alive, without whom the trunks become weak, he said. “Our greatest challenge is the same as it was in the year 1500: to continue living.”

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