Reportage. Indigenous peoples are hostage to the Bolsonaro government and the coronavirus. Many have fled deep into the forest to escape contagion. Deforestation is still advancing rapidly. Leaders search for balance between death rituals and health concerns.

COVID-19 accelerates Bolsonaro’s project against the Amazon and indigenous people

In Brazil, those who are dying in the greatest numbers are those who have been treated as objects since the 2018 presidential campaign: those of African lineage, the poor, and—more and more—the indigenous. In January of last year, Bolsonaro was already saying that “the Indians are undoubtedly changing … They are increasingly becoming human beings just like us.”

That statement, of such cynicism that reply seems futile, makes explicit the prejudice that indigenous peoples, not having embraced a modernity consisting of destructive and compulsive consumerist behavior, cannot be considered “fully human,” and as such must be either “redeemed” or eliminated.

A little more than a year after Bolsonaro’s election, the COVID pandemic comes into view as an acceleration of a plan that was already underway and that seems to be in full continuity with more ancient practices, given that pathogens have historically been one of the most powerful factors in the decimation of the indigenous peoples of South America. The threat posed by the new coronavirus and the actions taken by the current Brazilian government have been detailed in a letter published on April 17, 2020 in the scientific journal Science.

The indigenous community is responding as strongly as it can. When government measures at municipal and state level imposed quarantine, social isolation and the suspension of school activities in Amazonas, Yanomani village leaders and representatives of the Hutukara Yanomami Association called on many of the indigenous to abandon their xaponos (communities) and take refuge in the deep forest to try to escape contagion.

This is a form of self-protection that their elders have experience with, having already used it during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, when measles and whooping cough epidemics caused many deaths, but one which they never had to use again until the arrival of COVID-19.

The situation in the Amazon is dramatic. The government’s plan shows its aggressive intent by affecting every aspect of the preservation of the territory and the lives of its people.

Taking advantage of the opportunity created by the pandemic, deforestation is advancing at a rapid pace. Antonio Oviedo, coordinator of the monitoring programme at the Instituto Socioambiental, commented that ”there is an almost direct correlation between the rallies of the president, who is defending the legalization of illegal mining activities in the Amazon, and the increase in deforestation.”

The Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, gave clear signals that he will not tolerate any measures to stop the activity of the gold prospectors, the garimpeiros (who are outlaws), allowing the recent invasion of indigenous lands by more than 20,000 of them. Two important leading figures of IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), who were committed to preventing the massacre of the forest, have been dismissed. As is also happening at the Ministry of Health, the environmental protection authorities have entrusted the activities of inspection and control into the hands of the army.

FUNAI, a federal institution tasked with protecting the indigenous, is currently chaired by delegate Marcelo Xavier, known for having been removed from an operation that was trying to expel invaders from an indigenous land due to the suspicion that he was collaborating with the invaders. He then worked as a consultant for the ruralists during a parliamentary committee of inquiry into INCRA and FUNAI, i.e. working against the very institution he now chairs. Many employees have been dismissed and replaced by people without academic training in anthropology and the social sciences.

In January, to great criticism from the indigenous population (sadly ignored), Xavier appointed Ricardo Lopes Dias, former member of the Missão Novas Tribos do Brasil (MNTB), known for his aggressive work of evangelism among the indigenous people, as coordinator of the isolated indigenous communities.

As if this surreal situation regarding government appointments was not enough, with roles in the defence and protection of indigenous communities entrusted to people who are openly opposed to them, the three ethno-environmental protection bases set up for the ethnic groups with few contacts and the isolated have been shut down.

In this context, the way in which the Indios in the Amazon—generously granted the status of “human just like us”—are being buried nowadays also raises important issues for reflection. Since the death of a young Yanomami on April 9 at the General Hospital of Roraima, in the state of Boa Vista, the order to bury the indigenous in the cities to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has been experienced as violence against their culture by the traditional populations, who are asking for mediation.

Antonio Guerreiro, anthropologist and professor at Unicamp, notes that there are a variety of ways in which indigenous peoples relate to their dead: “I think that each Special Indigenous Health District should enter into dialogue with the representatives of the peoples involved to draw up protocols of action specific to each particular context.” For example, death rituals in Xingu take place at three different times and are a fundamental element for the identity of the people who live there.

According to Guerreiro, “it is necessary to evaluate and clarify the risks of contagion and discuss what are the possible alternatives to ensure that a people can give their dead a fate they consider dignified, within the limits imposed by this very serious situation in which we find ourselves.”

Indigenous leader Kaiulu Kamaiurá also stresses the need for dialogue between the leaders of each people (cacique) and the health authorities, while respecting the guidelines for prevention. Father Justino Sarmento Rezende, of the indigenous Tuyuka group from the Pari-Cachoeira region, who lived for a long time with the Yanomami of the Rio Marauiá in the municipality of Santa Isabel do Rio Negro, where he recently returned to live, also describes the Yanomani tradition of cremation followed by a days-long feast, culminating in the preparation and sharing of a meal of banana porridge mixed with the dust from the bones of the deceased.

Rezende brings this tradition up into focus, looking to find a meeting point between these rituals and the requirements of the current health emergency. But the situation is complicated, in light of the fact that for the indigenous people, the funeral ceremony is not only a moment of farewell that allows the living to say goodbye to the deceased, but a moment in which connections are made between human lives and those in the spirit world, and, together with them, the life of the whole world, harmonizing the coexistence of all and placating everything that could harm us.

As Bruce Albert explains, a French anthropologist who together with Davi Kopenava authored the seminal book A queda do céu (The Falling Sky), the purpose of these rituals is to “put the ashes of the dead into oblivion,” in order to ensure the one-way journey of the deceased person’s soul (pore) to the “other side of heaven,” where they will live a new life without suffering. In the absence of this ritual treatment of the funeral ashes, it is believed that the souls of the dead will always return to call on the living during their dreams, causing them nostalgia and endless melancholy.

Thus, the right to mourn one’s dead in a culturally appropriate way comes to view as a fundamental human right, both in Yanomami society and in ours.

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