Environment and land – Brazil

For the Amazon’s indigenous peoples, COVID-19 is the latest crisis in a long history of exclusion

Genna Naccache

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, indigenous peoples in the Amazonian basin were confronting a crisis that has been decades in the making. Brazil’s development policies, based on widespread exploitation of the country’s non-renewable natural resources, including its rainforests, have long been a major cause of encroachment on indigenous peoples’ lands.

Indigenous territories are largely unprotected from the threat of industrial-scale extractive activities such as logging and mining, often imposed by public authorities without any consultation with local communities or respect for their land rights. The projects are frequently accompanied by systematic campaigns of intimidation and violence against indigenous peoples and environmental defenders, with dozens of activists killed or injured in recent years.

These depredations have only intensified since the election of the far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro as the country’s president in January 2019. Having explicitly vowed to roll back environmental protections and promote the development of the Amazon region, Bolsonaro has overseen a dramatic escalation in the assault on conservation areas and indigenous territories. Against a backdrop of increasing impunity, illegal clearance for logging and cattle farming rose sharply in the months after his election: data released by the National Institute for Space Research in August 2019 showed that forest fires in the Amazon had increased by 84 per cent compared to the same period the year before. This has been enabled in part by the government’s transfer of deforestation management responsibilities, previously under the aegis of the Environment Ministry, to the Agriculture Ministry — an institution that has repeatedly encouraged the clearance of rainforest to accommodate cattle farming, plantations and other infrastructure projects. Enabled by the government’s development policies and with global demand for exports such as soya for farm feed and sugarcane for biofuel on the rise, Brazil’s landscape has suffered irreparable damage.

This continued expansion deep into the Amazonian rainforest poses a grave threat to the region’s indigenous populations and its rich biodiversity. Furthermore, given the vital role of the Amazon’s forests in reducing greenhouse gases, absorbing carbon dioxide and regulating global climate patterns, Bolsonaro’s destructive policies have attracted alarmed responses from scientists and activists across the globe. The greatest concern is that the Amazonian ecosystem is fast approaching a point of no return, after which forest cover will give way to cerrado, a savannah-like state that no amount of human intervention will be able to restore. Some scientists predict that the region may be as little as 10 years away from reaching this tipping point: from then, it may not only stop absorbing CO2, but also contribute to its increase in the atmosphere. 

Data released by the National Institute for Space Research in August 2019 showed that forest fires in the Amazon had increased by 84 per cent compared to the same period the year before.

Furthermore, the government’s plans to extend its road network deeper into the Amazon could escalate deforestation and environmental collapse. Road building in the Amazon is rooted in the military dictatorship, beginning with the inauguration of the Transamazonian Highway in 1972, passing through seven states and stretching over 4,000 kilometres. Its construction led to the clearance of vast areas, cutting through the territories of 29 indigenous peoples, of whom 11 had previously been isolated. The ‘pacification’ and removal of the indigenous inhabitants by force involved displacement, torture, massacres and the spread of diseases such as smallpox, both through negligence and intentionally. In the process, indigenous populations were decimated: for instance, an estimated two-thirds of Panará in Mato Grosso and Pará died during this period. This remains a painful reminder of the catastrophic human, cultural and ecological consequences of the military regime’s land expropriation and exploitation in the 1970s.

The Transamazonian Highway project was largely abandoned for over four decades. However, Bolsonaro has made its resumption a central policy of his administration, paving the way for further human settlement and exploitation of its fragile ecosystems. Not only will these new roads provide loggers and miners with greater capacity to transport their goods and expand their activities, but they will also open up access to land which could potentially be deforested and sold for agricultural purposes. Such projects are heavily underpinned by foreign and multinational capital interests. The growing demand in China for soya and beef, for example, has driven deforestation in the Amazon as vast swathes of land have been given over to industrial agriculture. Besides posing a major threat to endangered wildlife, medicinal plants and pristine river basins, these activities are also the main driver of indigenous land rights violations.

Other invasive developments are on the horizon, such as the industrial-scale Baron of Rio Branco project, which aims to develop the remote northern state of Pará in the Amazon, home to uncontacted indigenous communities. This project will involve the construction of a major hydroelectric dam, the Oriximiná, the construction of a bridge, and lastly, the extension of the busy BR-163 highway through hundreds of miles of protected indigenous forestland. Regrettably, this only confirms Bolsonaro’s determination to completely centralize control over the fragile Amazon basin.

These threats have been exacerbated by the onset of the pandemic. Paradoxically, reduced social contact and travel restrictions have played into the hands of loggers, miners and farmers, who have been able to escalate their illegal clearance of rainforest as the number of conservation officers and personnel monitoring violations in the field were reduced. In the first four months of 2020, during which millions of Brazilians opted to stay at home despite the mixed messaging of the Bolsonaro administration, deforestation in the Amazon rose sharply: an increase of 55 per cent in the first four months of 2020 compared to the already high levels seen in the same period of 2019. This trend continued throughout 2020, culminating in the highest annual level since 2008.

Brazil’s indigenous populations have a long history of devastating health crises, from measles to smallpox, brought into their communities from elsewhere. These outbreaks have often been closely linked with colonialism and land rights violations: during the 1980s, for instance, an influx of gold miners into Yanomami territory not only brought violence and destruction but also the introduction of a host of unfamiliar diseases that proved deadly for the community, killing around 20 per cent of its members in less than a decade. A similar pattern has emerged since the onset of COVID-19: the thousands of illegal miners and loggers active in the Amazon are widely believed to have contributed to the transmission of the virus, bringing it to even remote communities which might otherwise have been protected by distance and isolation from its spread. 

The construction of the Transamazonian Highway passing through seven states and stretching over 4,000 kilometres cut through the territories of 29 indigenous peoples, of whom 11 had previously been isolated.

Indeed, throughout the pandemic, indigenous peoples in the region have been especially vulnerable, with evidence suggesting mortality rates among these communities are more than double the national average. This heightened susceptibility is due to a range of factors, including the limited availability of health care, the prevalence of other underlying conditions among the population and their lack of exposure to other commonly circulating diseases. There are particular concerns about the implications for the more than 100 uncontacted tribes living in the rainforest who could be decimated if the virus reaches them. Strikingly, indigenous activists and political opposition groups have explicitly framed the pandemic as a potential ‘genocide’, that is, not as an isolated crisis but part of the broader pattern of death and disease that has accompanied the encroachment on and exploitation of their lands. This perception has only been reinforced by the government’s apparent willingness to roll back protections in the midst of the pandemic: indeed, in May 2020 leaked video footage appeared to show the Environment Minister suggesting that the crisis offered an opportune moment to ‘run the cattle herd’ through the Amazon while the public was distracted.

Early in the pandemic, between January and April 2020, deforestation in the Amazon rose sharply: an increase of 55 per cent compared to the same period in 2019.

Indigenous peoples in the Amazon have also experienced great suffering and cultural attrition through the loss of their elders to COVID-19. As storehouses of ancestral knowledge and wisdom, as well as vital guides to everything from local languages to traditional medicines, their deaths have left a profound absence in the collective knowledge of their communities. Alongside their critical role as ‘living libraries’, they also served as leaders to resist the countless invasions of their land and to protect their forests at all costs. The decimation of the older generation has therefore dealt a heavy blow to the unique identities and traditions of their peoples.

While the Bolsonaro administration has repeatedly sought to minimize the threat of COVID-19, the virus has torn through much of the country, with the Amazon’s capital city, Manaus, known as the gateway to the rainforest, emerging as its epicentre. Images from the city of mass graves and harrowing accounts of patients dying outside hospitals, of families desperately scouring the city for oxygen cylinders to keep loved ones alive, have captured the government’s negligent response to the crisis. After a brutal wave in the first months of the pandemic that many hoped would spare its residents from another surge in infections, the beginning of 2021 saw the city enter another crisis amidst the emergence of a deadly new variant in the region. While the implications could extend well beyond the Amazon and even Brazil – the variant has since spread to dozens of countries and prompted one renowned epidemiologist to warn that the government’s failure to manage the virus could turn the country into a threat to global health as a ‘breeding ground’ for further mutations – it seems inevitable that the heaviest burden, yet again, will be borne by indigenous peoples themselves.


Photo: From their villages on the banks of the Branco River in the Amazon, members of the indigenous Matis community travel for 12 days to Atalaia do Norte, the town closest to them, to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Credit: EPA-EFE/Tatiana Nevo.