Indigenous community displaced by dam collapse now fears Covid-19

. Jul 21, 2020
indigenous covid-19 pandemic Pataxó-hã-hã-hã-hãe man stares at the Paraopeba River. Photo: Lucas Hallel/FUNAI

First, they lost the river, their source of water for drinking, cooking, and bathing, and of fish, which formed the cornerstone of their diet. Then, they lost their land, where they planted crops and followed their traditional customs. And now, they run the risk of losing their lives from Covid-19. This is the story of the Pataxó-hã-hã-hães indigenous community, ran out of their homes after the collapse of the Córrego do Feijão tailings dam in January 2019, in the town of Brumadinho, Minas Gerais. 

Before the tragedy, which resulted in the death of almost 300 people, the destruction of entire communities, and the contamination of several sources of freshwater, 18 families lived in the Pataxó-hã-hã-hã-hãe Naô Xohã village, in São Joaquim de Bicas, a small municipality in the Paraopeba River valley. Most had only lived there for two years, after leaving their homeland in southern Bahia due to lack of water. Naô Xohã means “warrior spirit” in Patxohã, the traditional language still spoken by some members of the indigenous community.

</p> <p>Of this group, 122 people from 13 families left the region of Brumadinho at the beginning of 2020, as they no longer saw any sense in living in an area contaminated by mining waste, which made it impossible for them to survive according to their culture. The community divided, with some migrating from the forest in the interior of Minas Gerais toward the state capital of Belo Horizonte, and others moving back to southern Bahia.</p> <p>Those who remained in Minas Gerais moved to the town of Ibirité, on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte. Unlike the relative quiet of Brumadinho, Ibirité is overpopulated, poor, and often violent. However, this was where they were able to subsist on monthly damages payments from <a href="">mining company Vale</a>, the firm responsible for the collapsed dam in 2019. They recieve one BRL 1,045 (USD 199) minimum wage per adult, BRL 500 per adolescent family member, and BRL 250 per child.&nbsp;</p> <p>In Belo Horizonte, the families pay rents ranging from BRL 600 to BRL 800 a month. They live in shacks without front yards, commonplace in Brazilian favelas, where basic sanitation, water, and electricity infrastructure are lacking, as are services such as health and education. What’s more, the monetary aid Vale began paying in April 2019 will only run until October.</p> <p>By choosing Belo Horizonte, these families wanted to put pressure on Vale and the local government to make reparations to the indigenous peoples affected by the disaster that killed 270 people. Vale has an office in the capital of Minas Gerais, beside the headquarters of the Public Prosecution Service and the state courthouse.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="678" src="" alt="Pataxó-hã-hã-hães protest in front of Congress. Photo: José Cruz/ABr." class="wp-image-44892" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 2048w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Pataxó-hã-hã-hães protest in front of the Congress building. Photo: José Cruz/ABr.</figcaption></figure> <p>The situation of these families worsened with the arrival of the coronavirus. By July 20, eight members of the indigenous community had tested positive for Covid-19. All of them belong to the six Pataxó families who live in the neighborhood of Taquaril, where more than 200 cases of Covid-19 have been reported.&nbsp;</p> <p>Among those who have been infected are community elder Geovais and his daughter Quiçá, who have been hospitalized for two weeks in the Santa Casa facility in Belo Horizonte. Her husband, who also has the disease, is recovering at home. Indigenous chief Hayó and his wife, Ãgohó, a Pataxó leader, were also infected. A 2-year-old indigenous boy has also been diagnosed with the disease. These other patients also spent time in the hospital but have since returned home.&nbsp;</p> <p>Hayó and Ãgohó have been living with the symptoms of the disease and both complain of having breathing difficulties, spending most of the day lying down. In addition to western medicine, both are using natural remedies such as ginger, avocado seeds, pitanga, tobacco leaf, rosemary and amburana to attempt to treat the fever and malaise.</p> <p>Concerned about the future of their families, Ãgohó refers to what has happened to their community as &#8220;extermination.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;We were forced to change because we could no longer live in the village. We lost our source of water and food. We even lost our culture, our rituals. Here in the city we live imprisoned. There are shacks with up to eight indigenous people, who, for fear of violence and the coronavirus, don’t go outside. This is death,&#8221; complains the Pataxó leader.</p> <p>Indeed, the plight of indigenous communities in the Americas during the Covid-19 pandemic was raised by World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a briefing on Monday.</p> <p>“Though Covid-19 is a risk for all indigenous peoples globally, the WHO is deeply concerned about the impact of the virus on groups in the Americas, which remains the current epicenter of the pandemic,” he said.</p> <p>&#8220;We do not have to wait for a vaccine. We have to save lives now.&#8221;</p> <h2>Health Ministry not treating indigenous patients</h2> <p>One week ago, the Federal Prosecution Service (MPF) recommended that the Health Ministry’s indigenous health secretariat (Sesai) should adopt effective measures to guarantee the right to health of members of the Pataxó indigenous community, affected by the rupture of the Córrego do Feijão dam in Brumadinho.</p> <p>In November 2019, Sesai told the MPF that it could not provide care for the Pataxó people as the community’s lands are not in the process of being demarcated. That statement was reiterated again on June 22 of this year, when the MPF once again questioned discrepancies in healthcare.</p> <p>However, on July 8, Supreme Court Justice Roberto Barroso ordered the services of indigenous health be immediately extended to communities living on not-yet protected lands, as is the case of the Pataxó people.</p> <p>According to the justice, &#8220;the federal government&#8217;s attitude towards indigenous peoples located on non-demarcated lands is unacceptable. The identity of a group as an indigenous people is, primordially a matter of self-recognition by the members of the group itself. It does not depend on the homologation of the right to land. On the contrary, it precedes the recognition of such a right.&#8221;</p> <p>Citing the decision, the MPF recommended that Sesai must effectively and actively participate in the entire process of reparation for the damage suffered by the indigenous people, coordinating the measures to be taken and ensuring the presence of multidisciplinary indigenous health teams in the village, contracted by public authorities and funded by Vale.</p> <p>The Health Ministry has not yet responded to these demands.</p> <h2>Emergency Plan</h2> <p>In a statement, Vale reported that a multidisciplinary health team was hired for diagnosis and emergency care for indigenous groups. The plan includes guidance on how to confront the disease, remote psychological care, daily monitoring of symptoms through virtual platforms and telephone contacts, and support in contacting municipal and state health services at the appearance of any suspicious cases.</p> <p>The company also said a health team hired in partnership with the São Joaquim de Bicas Municipal Health Secretariat carried out a <a href="">flu vaccination campaign</a> with the group, in order to protect the indigenous community and ward off symptoms that could be confused with Covid-19.</p> <p>With regard to land issues, the mining company said that after an agreement with the MPF, the Indigenous Affairs Agency (Funai), and indigenous leaders of the community, the firm will hire an independent consultancy firm which will be responsible for the socio-economic diagnosis and evaluation of the impacts of the dam collapse on the community, in order to create an effective plan of reparation. The hiring of the consultancy is in progress, under the leadership of MPF and Funai.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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