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Brasil de fato is an online newspaper and radio agency headquartered in Sao Paulo. Launched in Porto Alegre in 2003 by social movements like the Landless Workers' Movement, Via Campesina, and Pastoral Care Social Commission, the paper gathers progressive journalists, writers and commentators who believe in circulating ideas and analysis to bring social change in Brazil and democratise the country's press.
In the Kuikuro village, at least half of the 400 residents were infected
Pedro Stropasolas

The Kuikuro Beat COVID-19: Amazon's Indigenous Exception

An indigenous tribe in Brazil's Amazon region has seen plenty of coronavirus cases, but zero deaths.

The Kuikuro tribe lives in the southern Amazon region, near the headwaters of the river Xingu, an area where the tropical forest spreads across centuries of pre-Colombian civilizations. These villages were once completely shut off from the rest of the world, made impenetrable by the dense vegetation surrounding them. But here too, like in the rest of the Amazon, the coronavirus arrived.

Some 30,000 indigenous people of 156 different tribes have become infected with the coronavirus in Brazil in the last few months, according to the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB). Across the Amazon, an estimated 800 indigenous people have died of COVID-19.

Still, there appears to be one notable exception. In the Kuikuro village too, at least half of the 400 residents were infected, according to the Kuikuro Association of the Upper Xingu. The virus infected young people, adults, the chief Afukaká Kuikuro and even a 90-year old woman. But the notable fact here is that they all survived.

Ever since the coronavirus first hit Brazil in mid-March, there were warnings that a disaster loomed for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon — who in the past have already been exposed to wave after wave of fatal epidemics that often decimated them. The National Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) has denounced the lack of an emergency plan to combat COVID-19 in indigenous lands after Jair Bolsonaro's government failed to introduce measures to contain the spread of the disease in indigenous lands until the beginning of July when it was ordered to do so by the Supreme Court.

Both smoke and the virus weaken the respiratory system.

Dinamã Tuxá, the executive coordinator of APIB, believes that the government's denial of the disease exposed a deeper weakening of indigenous health policy in the country. "With the arrival of the coronavirus, we realized that the state was unstructured in terms of indigenous policy, especially in terms of indigenous health," says Tuxá. "Dealing with the coronavirus would be difficult because other theoretically isolated territories were seeing high infection rates. We also thought it would take longer for the virus to arrive."

So in March, even if there were no cases of the disease in the Xingu region, the Kuikuro realized the danger was imminent and raised funds to build an impromptu hospital in their village. The association has also hired a medical team to work with about 120 indigenous health agents across the region.

The hospital has been generally effective, says family health expert Dr. Giulia Parise Balbão: "Elderly women almost 100 years old became seriously ill, they needed oxygen, but they were treated there, we didn't have to bring anyone somewhere else. The indigenous people have a strong connection to the land, which is very strong, very important and very intense."

The Kuikuro raised funds to build an impromptu hospital in their village — Photo: Screenshot Aikax Facebook page

Yanama Kuikuro, President of the Kuikuro Indigenous Association of the Upper Xingu, says the initiative was taken to avoid delays that could cause deaths. The association warns that the recent increase in wild fires in the region is another factor that has worsened the indigenous villages' ability to combat the pandemic.

"The woods are burning, there's a lot of smoke," Yanama says. "The amount of smoke made the situation of patients worse because both smoke and the virus weaken the respiratory system. When the wind arrived, the smoke got even worse."

The Kuikuro's organization has been an exception in the Upper Xingu region, which has a population of approximately 7,000 indigenous people, according to the association.

"In other villages, in other peoples, there was a lot of mortality — for example, among the Kamaiurá and the Yawalapiti," says Yanama. "We had already talked to people in each village, we got organized. Among the Kuikuro, there were no deaths."

Fire fighter in Novo Progresso, Brazil, on Aug. 15
Green Or Gone
Vanessa Nicolav

Brazil: What's Fueling The Fires In The Pantanal

SÃO PAULO — One of the world's most important biodiversity regions is experiencing the worst drought and the worst series of wildfires in decades. Yes, the Pantanal, the world's largest tropical wetland area, in western Brazil, is burning.

So far this year, fires have scorched more than 1.2 million hectares of land, about eight times the area covered by the municipality of Sao Paulo, an unprecedented situation, according to André Siqueira, a biologist with the ONG Ecoa who has been working in the region for 31 years. The Pantanal is also the world's largest flooded grassland. Natural cycles cause the land to flood periodically, and thousands of hectares of land remain underwater in June and July every year. "This year, we didn't have that," Siqueira says.

Fires have scorched more than 1.2 million hectares of land.

Marcos Rosa, the coordinator of Mapbiomas, a project that uses data and scientific expertise to produce land-use estimates in the Pantanal and other biodiversity hubs, says that the historic drought has systemic roots associated with climactic and water imbalance caused by the devastation of other important biomes, such as the Cerrado, a vast tropical savannah area of Brazil — and especially, the Amazon.

Fire in Altamira, Brazil, on Aug. 12 — Photo: Fernando Souza/ZUMA

"The headwaters of the rivers that flow into the Pantanal are born in the Cerrado and in the Amazon," Rosa says, "And they are very devastated. Only 40% of them are preserved; the rest is being used by agriculture. There are a lot of soybean plantations that sprawl right to the river bank. When it rains, the sediments flow down the Pantanal and silt up the Pantanal rivers, leaving them shallower."

Besides the problem of the water coming from other parts of the country, another factor causing the current droughts and wildfires are the cattle farmers who deforest the land and swap local vegetation with other species more resistant to cattle. According to a survey by the SOS Pantanal Institute, about 15% of the Pantanal area has already been turned into pasture.

The bailout came too late.

"The traditional use of the land as pasture is very sustainable — it's typical of the Pantanal and has little impact," says Rosa. "The big problem today is the people who've come from outside the region who are not traditional residents. The first thing they do when they arrive is to remove all the grasslands, savannah and forest to make room for an exotic plantation. This happens in very large areas. It's the biggest problem in the Pantanal."

In late July, the federal government sent military personnel and aircraft to fight fires in the Pantanal. But environmentalists say the bailout came too late, and will not mitigate the effects of other damaging policies passed by the government. Last year, President Jair Bolsonaro's government cut funding and promoted policies that gutted IBAMA and ICMBio, the main bodies responsible for environmental protection in the country.

The result, according to Siqueira, is a lack of investment in the inspection agencies who should be tasked with monitoring, preventing and combating fires. "The current structure of inspection mechanisms is completely contrary to the exponential growth of the fire," he explained. "There's no denying that the federal government's narrative has played a role."