Survival International calls for protection of indigenous territories as “a matter of life and death”

Uncontacted Indians in Brazil seen from the air during a Brazilian government expedition in 2010

Uncontacted Indians in Brazil seen from the air during a Brazilian government expedition in 2010
© G.Miranda/FUNAI/Survival

The protection of indigenous lands around the globe is critical to prevent thousands of tribal people dying from coronavirus, Survival International said today.

Although the entire world now understands how dangerous new diseases can be, Brazil’s President Bolsonaro is actively encouraging fundamentalist missionaries to make contact with uncontacted Amazonian tribes, who lack resistance to outside diseases.

He’s appointed an evangelical missionary to head the government’s uncontacted tribes department, and the New Tribes Mission (one of the largest fundamentalist missionary organizations) has launched a plan to target uncontacted tribes in the Javari Valley, home to more such peoples than anywhere else on Earth. (The New Tribes Mission has re-branded as Ethnos360 in the US).

Eode at the New Tribes Mission base, 1979. Captured in a manhunt, he died a few days later.

Eode at the New Tribes Mission base, 1979. Captured in a manhunt, he died a few days later.
© Luke Holland/ Survival

In addition, many tribes in Brazil such as the Yanomami, the Kawahiva, the Uru Eu Wau Wau, the Munduruku and the Awá, are seeing their territories invaded by goldminers, ranchers and loggers. All are home to uncontacted communities, who are the most vulnerable peoples on the planet and extremely susceptible to outside diseases.

Brazilian indigenous leader Celia Xakriaba said: “We’re especially concerned about uncontacted tribes, because coronavirus could mean the extermination of these people. We realize that the pandemic is a crisis for all humanity, but we know that Brazilians won’t be completely exterminated. For us indigenous peoples though, it represents a real threat of extermination.”

Survival’s Uncontacted Tribes campaigner Sarah Shenker said today: “If their lands are properly protected from outsiders, uncontacted tribes should be relatively safe from the coronavirus pandemic. But many of their territories are being invaded and stolen for logging, mining and agribusiness, with the encouragement of President Bolsonaro, who has virtually declared war on Brazil’s indigenous peoples. Where invaders are present, coronavirus could wipe out whole peoples. It’s a matter of life and death.

One of the many illegal gold mining sites in the Yanomami territory

One of the many illegal gold mining sites in the Yanomami territory
© FUNAI

“Besides uncontacted tribes, the pandemic is particularly worrying for many other indigenous people given their communal ways of life which could encourage its spread within communities, and, in some cases, their geographical distance from hospitals (on which they generally rely only to treat diseases brought by non-indigenous society). President Bolsonaro has also cut the indigenous health service which will play a vital role in the months ahead. These cuts must be reversed urgently, and a full service made available to those indigenous people who need it.”

Many indigenous communities around the world are either quarantining themselves in their forests (like Indonesia’s Orang Rimba, and Adivasi villages in India), or closing their territories to outsiders during the pandemic, as governments have proved unable or unwilling to protect their territories from incursions.

There have now been two confirmed cases of coronavirus among indigenous people in Brazil, one of whom has died.