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COVID-19 threatens indigenous people in Brazilian Amazon

Brasilia, April 17 (IANS) Deforestation, fires, land invasions and now the coronavirus, Indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon were isolating themselves from the pandemic in remote jungle areas to dodge a health crisis that has already claimed lives in the communities.

COVID-19 cases were rising daily amid the dense vegetation of the world’s largest rainforest and triggering a growing sense of unease.

“The situation is quite complicated,” Paulo Tupiniquim, one of the coordinators of the Association of Indigenous People of Brazil, told Efe news on Thursday.

At least three members of indigenous groups have reportedly died of COVID-19 in Brazil, whose borders contain roughly two-thirds of the Amazon basin, including a 15-year-old member of the Yanomami ethnic group.

There have been 17 confirmed coronavirus cases and 22 other suspected cases among the indigenous population, according to the federal Health Ministry’s latest bulletin, although civil society organizations and authorities consulted by Efe have said that the numbers were likely higher.

Coronavirus cases also have been detected in the Amazon regions of Colombia and Peru.

In addition to this new threat from an “invisible enemy”, as some ethnic groups refer to COVID-19, illegal loggers and miners also have been capitalizing on reduced oversight during the pandemic to step up their invasions of indigenous lands.

Concerns about the survival of some ethnic groups were particularly acute, particularly the Karipuna in the western state of Rondonia, which borders Bolivia. That tribe is believed to consist of just 58 people and has seen its lands systematically invaded by illegal loggers.

Also under threat are members of the Yanomami tribe living in uncontacted villages on the border with Venezuela; the Zuruaha, whose population is less than 200; and the indigenous people of the Javari Valley, a territory in Amazonas state, near the Peruvian border, that is home to the world’s largest concentration of isolated native peoples.

The situation in Amazonas state, home to Brazil’s largest indigenous population (168,700, according to the latest census in 2010), is among the most serious nationwide with 1,554 confirmed coronavirus cases and 106 deaths – more than 5 per cent of the country’s total in each category – in just one month.

Nationwide, Brazil has had around 30,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,736 deaths, and the peak of the pandemic was not expected to arrive until May or June.

Meanwhile, deforestation in the first quarter of 2020 was the highest of the past five years and up 51.4 pe rcent from the same three-month period of 2019. In March, as the coronavirus was expanding throughout Brazil, deforestation rose by 30 per cent.

Violence against indigenous people also has continued unabated, with the shooting death of a Guajajara indigenous leader on March 31 in the northeastern state of Maranhao marking the fifth such murder of a member of that ethnic group over the past five months.

–IANS

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