Evicted indigenous people in Manaus struggle to stay safe amid COVID-19 crisis
- A group of about 400 indigenous people were displaced from an informal settlement on the outskirts of Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon in February, reportedly in connection with drug trafficking issues in the area, despite previous promises to regularize their occupation.
- Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, accounts for the country’s fourth-highest number of deaths due to COVID-19 and a growing number of confirmed cases, exacerbating the situation for the evicted indigenous people who also face a greater challenge making a living amid scarce jobs and limited income sources.
- Home to more than 180,000 indigenous people, Amazonas is the Brazilian state with the largest indigenous population, many of whom live in remote areas and lack health services, raising concerns among researchers about their susceptibility to COVID-19 infection.
- The federal government recently announced the creation of an emergency hospital in Manaus devoted specifically to indigenous people; with more than 4,000 reported cases and 351 deaths, authorities have been warning in recent weeks that the state’s health system is close to its limit.
For three years, Anne Kokama made a living on a small piece of land where she planted cassava and other vegetables in Monte Horebe, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon. A few banana trees and some poultry she raised also helped her provide food every day for her family. “Having a plot of land, indigenous people can live anywhere,” she says. She also made some money working as a beautician for a few regular customers in the neighborhood.
But this scenario changed completely in the past two months, when all 2,000 Monte Horebe residents, including 400 indigenous people from 30 different ethnicities, according to local newspaper A Critica, were displaced by the Amazonas state government in connection with drug trafficking allegations in the area, despite previous promises to regularize their occupation.
“We don’t have a job, we almost have nothing to eat in our homes,” says Anne, who is a single mother and now lives in a rented apartment in the north of the city with two of her three children. She says she lived all her life in Manaus’s urban area, but moved to Monte Horebe to escape from an abusive relationship.
Monte Horebe was created in 2015 after squatters cleared and occupied a large patch of rainforest some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from downtown Manaus, the Amazonas state capital. It was home to low-income families that also included refugees from Venezuela and Haiti.
Now, with the city of Manaus accounting for the country’s fourth-highest number of deaths due to COVID-19 and a growing number of confirmed cases, the ability of evicted indigenous people to make a living has become even more challenging amid scarce jobs and limited income sources.
In early April, a study using phone data showed that Manaus is the Brazilian state capital with the lowest rate of social distancing. Like other residents, some displaced indigenous people seem to be unaware of the pandemic risks.
“We don’t have that disease and I don’t think we will catch it,” says indigenous leader Bia Kokama, downplaying the COVID-19 threat. Originally from São Paulo de Olivença, a town nearly 1,300 km (800 mi) from Manaus, Bia was one of the first settlers in Monte Horebe, mobilizing residents to claim for land regularization. She says family-run farms were the main source of livelihood for many of Monte Horebe’s residents.
Some of the evicted residents have moved to other parts of the city to live with relatives. The state government is paying a rental allowance of 600 reais ($110) to families who signed an agreement to leave the informal settlement. The subsidy will last initially for six months, but the government has repeatedly said that it will be extended until they find a “permanent housing solution.” Still, many worry about the future and complain that the subsidy is not reaching everyone.
Claudia Ruiz, an Apurinã indigenous woman who also lived in Monte Horebe, says her brother is ill and paying rent without receiving the subsidy. “But it’s not that disease, no,” Claudia says, referring to COVID-19.
She says her brother was unable to sign the agreement because he was working when social workers visited Monte Horebe to make a list of people interested in receiving the subsidy. Now, Claudia says, he’s trying to resolve the situation with the state government so that he can get the allowance.
Claudia, her brother and her sister all had their own houses in Monte Horebe. The houses were initially made of wood and lacked water and electricity, but by the time they were evicted, they had already turned them into brick houses with basic amenities, Claudia says.
After their houses were tore down, Claudia and her family had to move to rented apartments. She and her husband now share a small place with her sister. They receive the government allowance, but both Claudia and her husband are unemployed.
The government of Amazonas did not reply to several requests for comment.
Similar to the people evicted from Monte Horebe, indigenous people from the Warao ethnic group have also struggled to navigate the pandemic in Manaus. Originally from Venezuela, many of them live in shelters provided by the city.
Last week, news website G1 reported that these facilities lacked basic amenities and the refugees lived in crowded conditions. The news came after a 2-month-old Warao baby living in one of these shelters tested positive for COVID-19.
Manaus City Hall did not reply to requests for comment.
The federal government recently announced the creation of an emergency hospital in Manaus devoted specifically to indigenous people. With more than 4,000 reported cases and 351 deaths, authorities have been warning in recent weeks that the state’s health system is close to its limit.
On 29 April, the governor of Amazonas, Wilson Lima, sent a letter to the United Nations requesting support to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, including financial resources, medical supplies, tests for virus identification and specialized medical assistance for the traditional communities.
COVID-19 Outbreak in Remote Areas
Home to more than 180,000 indigenous people, Amazonas is the Brazilian state with the largest indigenous population. Many of them live in remote areas and lack health services, raising concerns among researchers about COVID-19 contamination.
“Families living in remote areas don’t have an easy access to indigenous health assistance nor have the means to notify disease cases and guarantee the removal of patients who need hospital care,” says Maria Luiza Garnelo, a researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation.
In São Gabriel da Cachoeira, a town in Amazonas that only can be reached by plane or boat, the first cases of coronavirus were recently confirmed despite the implementation of strict lockdown measures. All passenger transportation was forbidden, but the virus still found a way in, infecting a Baniwa indigenous teacher and a member of the military, local media reported. According to news agency Amazônia Real, there is only one hospital in the town, which lacks an intensive care unit and has only seven ventilators, needed to treat the most severe cases. About 40,000 indigenous people live in the town, accounting for 95% of its population.
According to official figures provided by SESAI, the federal government’s body in charge of health services for indigenous people in Brazil, 92 indigenous people have tested positive for COVID-19; four of them have died.
However, the real number of indigenous people affected by the coronavirus is probably much higher, as these figures only include individuals living in rural areas; thousands of indigenous people living in cities who tested positive for coronavirus are reportedly being registered as non-indigenous.
To address this gap, different organizations have created online platforms focused on the coronavirus impact on indigenous people. One of them is Quarentena Indígena (Indigenous Quarantine), a website launched by the Brazilian Indigenous Peoples’ Association (APIB) that keeps track of all indigenous cases reported, including those in cities, and provides information in different indigenous languages on how to prevent the spread of the virus among communities. According to it, 15 indigenous people have died due to COVID-19 so far.
Another platform was created by the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), a Brazilian NGO. It monitors how COVID-19 is affecting indigenous communities, showing in which indigenous reserves the cases are happening. It also provides information about nearby hospitals and the number of intensive care beds and ventilators available. The platform has a metric to highlight areas that are the most vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“The model tries to simulate the progression of the disease, the number of potential indigenous who will be contaminated, and the demand that the health infrastructure will have,” says Antonio Oviedo, a researcher at ISA and the coordinator of the monitoring program.
Several indigenous reserves in Amazonas top the vulnerability list, including the Yanomami and the Vale do Javari reserves. Both areas also face increasing encroachment by wild-cat miners and illegal loggers.
The Brazilian government has launched an emergency subsidy of 600 reais for low-income citizens. But in areas far from cities, such as the Yanomami indigenous reserve, the subsidy will have a limited impact. Dario Kopenawa, vice president of the Hutukara association and a young indigenous leader of the Yanomami people, says that what’s needed is more long-term investment in the communities.
Update (1 May 2020): The article was updated to include the information about a letter sent by the Government of Amazonas to the United Nations requesting support to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in the state.
Photo on front page: Kanamari indigenous child in Vale do Javari, in Amazonas state, one of the most vulnerable indigenous reserves to COVID-19, according to an analysis by the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), a Brazilian NGO. Source: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real. Photo on this page: Charred remains of a maloca or communal house of an isolated indigenous group in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory. Source: FUNAI.