Indigenous Women Battling Coronavirus in Brazil

Mia Vines Booth explores the significant role of women like Joênia Wapichana and Ivaneide Bandeira in the fight against Covid-19.

Coronavirus has had a hugely disruptive impact in the West, to varying degrees depending on individual circumstances.  However, for indigenous tribes in the Amazon, the virus runs the risk of completely destroying their way of life and wiping out entire communities. With Jair Bolsonaro consistently proving that he has no desire to increase the recognition and protection of these increasingly precarious communities, indigenous Amazonian women have taken it upon themselves to bring the fight to him. Yet as contact between these groups and the outside world has grown, so has their risk of contracting the virus, of which they have little or no immunological defence.

In October 2018, Joênia Wapichana became the first indigenous woman to be elected to Brazilian Congress, more than 34 years after the only other native to ever be elected, Mario Juruna. Her position came with immense responsibility. As a female lawyer representing over 900,000 indigenous people across Brazil, 0.5% of Brazil’s population, Wapichana was well aware of the David and Goliath battle she was embarking on. This battle was all the more pressing in a Congress where – at the time of Wapichana’s election – women occupied only seven out of 81 seats.

Elected on the promise to push for more Indigenous land and to protect the environment, tackling a  pandemic was never on Wapichana’s agenda. Just as it has for  many indigenous leaders in Brazil, Coronavirus has brought even more challenges to Wapichana’s leadership, and the collective response of these leaders will ultimately determine the impact of this disease. 

In early April, Wapichana warned that the coronavirus could represent “one more genocide” for indigenous communities. She criticised Bolsonaro’s administration “for suppressing the participation of organisations in the implementation of public policies by revoking councils of social control and suppressing resources for articulation, conferences and meetings.” Furthermore, she  added that bills to protect indigenous peoples against the virus had already been presented to the House of Representatives with no response.

She also stressed the need for the Brazilian Ministry of Health to recognise the specific effects of Coronavirus on indigenous women, many of whom increasingly rely on contact with surrounding cities for sexual and reproductive health, and for economic relief. On Facebook, she expressed her condolences to the relatives of the 15-year-old boy who belonged to the Yanomami tribe and is believed to be the first indigenous person to die from the Coronavirus on the 9th April.

Other female leaders in Brazil have criticised the increased likelihood of infection due to mining incorporations invading indigenous lands. Talking with WWF, Ivaneide Bandeira, coordinator of the Association of Ethno-Environmental Defence Kanindé, which operated in Rondônia State in North-East Brazil, argued that federal agencies’ deliberate inspection reductions have worsened the current crisis: 

“The number of miners in the Cinta Larga and Suruí territories is increasing, as well as land grabbing and deforestation in the Uru-eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Land. In addition to the environmental damage, there is now a risk of contaminating indigenous individuals, unleashing a true genocide of entire peoples”, she says. 

Dr Sofia Mendonca, a researcher at the Federal University of São Paulo, has been studying the effects of viruses on indigenous communities in the Xingu river basin in the Amazon rainforest. In an interview with the BBC, she argued that “There is an incredible risk of the virus spreading across the native communities and wiping them out”. She pointed to the high mortality rates of previous outbreaks of highly contagious respiratory diseases such as measles and its repercussions, in which the wisdom of old people and the social organisation of tribes were lost. “It’s chaos”, she says simply.

Amazon Frontline, an international movement of human rights lawyers, environmental activists, filmmakers, journalists and more, are based in the western Amazon and have been devoted to supporting the struggles of indigenous peoples. They have been working with local leaders in the Amazon to generate international support. In a statement released on April 8, they responded to the current crisis:

“Due to lack of government response, indigenous communities and organisations took measures to protect themselves weeks ago by closing their territories to any outsiders and demanding urgent action from their governments. As reported by Al Jazeera, “the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) closed all access to the rainforest, denying entrance to both tourists and Ecuadorian nationals. They also demanded that all oil, mining, hydroelectric, and logging companies that operate in the rainforest stop rotating their personnel and bringing people in from the cities and suspend all activities near communities.”

This potentially devastating situation harks back to memories from less than 200 years ago, embedded in the collective consciousness of native Latin Americans, when invading Spanish conquistadors brought new diseases such as Smallpox and Measles to the region, decimating indigenous populations. Now more than ever, we must listen to the voices of Joênia Wapichana and other incredible Brazilian women in this battle, who are using their platforms to overcome the intersectional dynamics of oppression towards indigenous women.

To see more of the incredible work being done to protect indigenous communities against Coronavirus, visit Amazon Frontline at: https://give.amazonfrontlines.org/campaign/amazon-action-fund-covid-19/c279501. You can also check out Joênia Wapichana’s Facebook page, where she is documenting her tireless efforts to support Brazil’s indigenous peoples. 

References

  1. ‘Brazil Moves to Protect Indigenous Tribes From Coronavirus’, Reuters, April 13 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/04/13/world/americas/13reuters-health-coronavirus-brazil-indigenous.html
  2. ‘Coronavirus ‘could wipe out Brazil’s indigenous people’, Joao Fellet, BBC Brasil, 6 April 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-52139875
  3. ‘First coronavirus deaths reported in indigenous communities in the Amazon’, Scott Wallace, April 11 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/04/first-coronavirus-deaths-indigenous-communities-amazon/
  4. ‘Brazil: Indigenous, Transgender Women Elected to Legislator, 19 October 2018, https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/Brazil-Indigenous-Transgender-Women-Elected-to-Legislature-20181009-0002.html
  5. ‘Joenia Wapichana: Brazil’s first native woman voted to Congress’, Mia Alberti, 13 October 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/10/joenia-wapichana-brazil-native-woman-voted-congress-181012203934564.html
  6. ‘Coronavirus: indigenous and traditional populations cannot be forsaken’, Bruno Taitson, 9 April 2020, https://www.wwf.org.br/?75802/Coronavirus-indigenous-and-traditional-populations-cannot-be-forsaken#

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