COVID-19 Sheds Light onto Brazilian Government’s Failure to Protect Indigenous Communities

Brazil’s COVID-19 infection rates have been steadily increasing in the past month and the country has now been classified as a new global hotspot, 2nd behind the United States. This is especially worrying because Brazil is an emerging economy with an underfunded healthcare system and relatively weak social safety net. Brazil also has several of the most populous cities in Latin America, and COVID-19 could overwhelm the healthcare system and shock vulnerable parts of society as a result of a lack of welfare support. Apart from these major problems, a less publicized but comparably concerning effect of COVID-19 is its impact on the indigenous communities that reside within Brazil’s borders. 


Map showing the numbers of cases of COVID-19 among indigenous people in Brazil as of June 23rd, by state. Source: Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB)


A recent study by the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and the Socio-environmental Institute (ISA) found that the Yanomami indigenous communities that live in the states of Roraima and Amazonas face a “genocide with the complicity of the Brazilian state” with the possibility of losing almost 6.5% of its population, which would make it one of the most affected populations to COVID-19 in the world. The Yanomani have been labeled as being the most vulnerable group in the Amazon due to their exposure to the illegal garimpeiros (gold miners) that come in contact with the Yanomami and often bring illnesses in from the cities. The prosecutor of the Public Ministry of Roraima reported that in the past year, the number of reports from indigenous leaders of the presence of these garimpeiros has increased, even during the pandemic. 


The Yanomami in the Amazon. Source: The Guardian


The Yanomami land covers an area equivalent to the size of Portugal and there are almost 30,000 people that are a part of the Yanomami and Ye’kwana communities. They live in relative isolation, which means that their interactions with people from cities are in theory limited and calculated. The garimpeiros bring in the danger of infections, violence, and mercury poisoning. This is not only true during a pandemic, as studies have shown that garimpo (gold mining) “is associated with the greatest incidence of infectious diseases in the Amazon, such as malaria.” In the case of COVID-19, Yanomami communities that are more exposed to these garimpeiros could have an infection rate of almost 40% of their population

“Allowing the invasion of the garimpeiros is to allow for a new genocide.” – Ubiratan Cazetta, regional prosecutor

The effects of such high infection rates can have grave impacts for these indigenous communities, as they put their cultural longevity in danger. The UFMG and ISA study explains that “the sudden disappearance of elders, known as ‘living libraries’, could impact the social reproduction of the Yanomami and has irreversible consequences for the survival of the cultural heritage of the Yanomami and Ye’kwana people.” There has already been a notable indigenous death at the hands of COVID-19. Bep’kororoti, known publicly as Paulinho Paiakan, was a leader of the Kayapó people in the state of Pará. Paiakan defended indigenous land, ensured that indigenous rights were included in the Brazilian constitution, and fought to prevent deforestation in the Amazon through high profile protests. Indigenous people around the country have pointed to this death as being a clear example of the dangers of this virus, demanding that the government do more to protect them from future infections and provide support for those that already have been infected. 


Kayapó chief Paulinho Paiakan Source: Ueslei Marcelino, Reuters


There have been several policies that have been proposed to combat the high infection rates facing the Yanomami. There has been a large effort by indigenous leaders and partner organizations to pressure the government to remove the 20,000 illegal miners on their land through a campaign called Fora Garimpo, Fora Covid (Take out mining, take out covid). They are asking the public for signatures and donations on their website. The UFMG and ISA study point to the immediate removal of the garimpeiros as a key way to limit new contacts and infections in the area. They also emphasize that there is also a need for there to be an active effort to find and test new cases and isolate patients as rapidly as possible. They explain that usually, health services only interact with indigenous communities when they are sought out by them in emergencies and that there should be a more proactive approach during this pandemic. 

In response to the problem regarding the garimpeiros, a Federal Regional Court called for the reactivation of Bases of Entho-Environmental Protection on Yanomami land, which had been deactivated in 2017. This decision would hold the federal government, the state of Roraima, and the National Indian Foundation responsible for taking action against the illegal garimpeiros on Yanomami land. 

The proximity and availability of health services is another major issue for the Yanomami. They are located about 152 miles away from the city of Boa Vista, which has the only hospital in the state. There has been an initiative by the Brazilian government to build a field hospital, which will focus on treating COVID-19 patients in the region and has also claimed that it will have an isolated area for treating indigenous patients. As a precaution, non-indigenous health workers are said to have to undergo a two-step quarantine, one in their home cities and another once they arrive at the hospital. The construction and opening of this hospital had been repeatedly delayed until it finally opened on June 18th, almost three months after the initiative had been announced on March 23rd. This delay has been attributed to a lack of medical professionals and materials that should have been organized and provided by the government of Roraima. As soon as the hospital was opened, COVID-19 patients from the General Hospital of Roraima began being transferred over.


Hammocks have been installed in the field hospital in Roraima to accommodate indigenous patients who may feel more comfortable in these beds. Source: Globo


The installment of this field hospital is not only beneficial for the non-indigenous residents of Roraima as well as the Yanomami, but it also serves another vulnerable group in the region. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are almost 5,000 indigenous people from Venezuela that are displaced in Brazil. They mainly belong to the Warao ethnic group, but also the Eñapa, Kariña, Pemon and Ye’kwana communities. Brazil’s Operação Acolhida (Operation Welcome) had already been tasked with providing these refugees with shelter, food, medical and educational services before the pandemic. Since the Brazilian Amazon is proving to be a concerning area for COVID-19 infections, there is a worry that these refugees will also be affected by the high infection rates. Operação Acolhida was involved in establishing the field hospital in Roraima and UNHCR is also involved in providing hygiene kits and health workshops. However, there is still great concern about the health and safety of these refugees due to the rapid spread of the virus. 


Indigenous Warao refugees from Venezuela in Boa Vista, Brazil. Source: International Organization for Migration


Many NGOs have been working to bring attention to the problems that are currency facing indigenous communities in Brazil. These groups have been lobbying the government to pass certain laws that protect indigenous communities, they share the stories of indigenous leaders and people, and raise awareness to the different abuses that are occurring. The Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) provides new information about the state of COVID-19 outbreaks in the region and shares the testimonies and demands of different indigenous groups.



“COIAB informs on the increase of #COVID19 among the Indigenous Communities in the Brazilian Amazon on 06/22/2020. The graph shows a the summary and comparison between the official data from Sesai and data collected by COIAB.


COIAB also publishes letters from indigenous groups, communicating their needs and grievances. Recently, they shared a letter from the people of the indigenous land of Tumucumaque and the East Parú river. The authors of the letter detail which communities have people with COVID-19 symptoms and demand that more tests and medical attention are made available to them. They also allege that people in the Matawaré region were infected by someone who had returned from the Indigenous Health Support House (CASAI) and had not been tested prior to their departure from the hospital, complaining about negligence. 

Another group, the Articulation of the Indigenous People of Brazil (APIB) is a major source for updates from indigenous communities around the country. Here, they share their organizing efforts in creating hygiene kits to send to indigenous people in the state of Alagoas.


“The indigenous people of Alagoas are on a difficult hill with the daily increase in cases of the novel coronavirus. On Friday, June 19th we began the delivery of personal hygiene kits in the indigenous territories of Alagoas…”


Their account has also posted the work being done by indigenous communities themselves in order to fight against the shortcomings of the Brazilian government and protect themselves against COVID-19. One problem with the spread of COVID-19 in indigenous communities is that it is difficult for members to isolate themselves from each other, as these communities often have cultural values that promote sharing meals and living spaces. In order to adopt social distancing measures, the Kuikuro people have built an isolation house in their village and have also blocked all entrances into their community. 


“#repost. To protect themselves against the #coronavirus, the Kuikuro people built an isolation house in their village, respecting the culture of their community.


All around Brazil, indigenous communities are facing COVID-19 with little support from the local and federal governments that are supposed to be protecting their rights. Reading the complaints from various indigenous communities, it is apparent that there is a clear pattern both in the nature of the spread of COVID-19 and the lack of support once indigenous people are infected. The scarcity of testing and medical attention available to indigenous groups is incredibly dangerous and makes these communities vulnerable to both a physical and cultural genocide. On June 16th, the Brazilian Senate passed bill 1142/2020, which is an emergency plan to support indigenous people, quilombolas (settlements of the descendants of enslaved Afro-Brazilians), and traditional people and communities. This bill would increase epidemiological surveillance to prevent the spread of the virus and offer rapid testing, medical care, and baskets of goods to these communities. It also includes emergency aid payments, universal access to drinking water, and the distribution of hygienic materials. It is now up to President Bolsonaro to approve this bill. Activists have been mobilizing under the hashtag #sancionaPL1142 to pressure him to sign as soon as possible, in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 and begin to provide this necessary support to these communities.

Sofia Munoz | Scripps College
Sofia is a rising junior at Scripps College pursuing a major in Politics with a concentration in International Relations and a minor in Foreign Languages. Raised in Silver Spring, MD, a suburb of Washington, D.C., she is the daughter of two Bolivian immigrants. Her interest in Latin American politics stems from her connection to her family’s culture and her experience living in Brazil. She is interested in exploring the different sides of international development work and looking at the ways local people and organizations impact their communities. As a Latin American correspondent, Sofia is excited to delve into the unique stories and passion that fuels the work being done to address inequality, human rights, and community development.