As COVID-19 reached remote indigenous lands in Brazil’s Amazon, the government agency responsible for protecting native people brushed off calls for action, focusing instead on waging ideological battles, according to agents from the institution itself and others.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s repeated promotion of developing the vast Amazon has for months prompted indigenous activists, celebrities and agents on the ground to sound the alarm. In the face of a spreading pandemic, they warn inaction is enough to wipe out many indigenous people.
The Associated Press spoke to four agents who work with indigenous peoples in the farthest reaches of Brazil’s Amazon, and they were unanimous in their conclusion: The national Indian foundation, known as FUNAI, is hardly doing anything to co-ordinate a response to a crisis that could decimate ethnic groups.
There’s not enough protective equipment for agents who enter indigenous territories or meet with native people in cities. Necessities like kerosene and gasoline are in short supply. Food deliveries only began last week — a month after indigenous people were instructed to remain in their villages — and remain vastly insufficient.
Since the pandemic’s onset, there has been fear about the vulnerability of native people who live far from urban health facilities and whose communal lifestyles render them susceptible to swift transmission.
At least 88 indigenous people have already died of COVID-19 in the Amazon, according to a tally by the Brazilian indigenous organization APIB that includes health ministry figures and information from local leaders. The count is likely higher, because hospitals often don’t use patients’ indigenous names when admitting them.
As native people started succumbing to the coronavirus, FUNAI’s focus was elsewhere, according to Antonio Carlos Bigonha, who heads the public prosecution office responsible for indigenous affairs. He said the Indian agency’s response has been “delinquent, lax, insufficient,” reflective of Bolsonaro’s open support of assimilation.
“The environment of COVID-19 is so grave, because integration alone is bad, but in the context of a pandemic is genocide,” Bigonha said in a telephone interview.
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CIMI, a Catholic group that defends indigenous rights, condemned FUNAI’s policies for failing to safeguard native peoples. FUNAI fired back, attacking what it called “socialist public policies” implemented since 2003 by the leftist Workers’ Party that it maintained made indigenous people dependent on welfare.
“This isn’t … a socialist plot,” said Bigonha. “It’s just an interpretation of historical facts: We adopted integrationist policy at the start of the 20th century and it almost did away with the indigenous people.”
Brazilian photographer Sebasti?o Salgado, famous for his work with indigenous tribes, drafted a manifesto warning of imminent threat to native peoples and calling on Brazil’s government to take action to protect them. It drew 245,000 signatories, including Paul McCartney, Meryl Streep, film director Pedro Almodovar and model Gisele Bundchen.