“We are being forgotten about, abandoned”

. Sep 05, 2020
indigenous chief Aritana Yawalapíti Indigenous chief Aritana Yawalapíti died on August 5, 2020. Photo: Ademir Rodrigues/Brasil Indígena/FUNAI

September 5 is Amazon Day, commemorated around Brazil to mark the emancipation of the Province of Amazonas in 1850, a region that now encompasses the states of Amazonas and Roraima. These days, the date is largely observed by environmentalist NGOs and activist groups, concerned with the progressive destruction of Brazil’s largest biome. This Amazon Day, however, comes with an added taste of melancholy, as it marks the one-month anniversary of the death of indigenous chief Aritana Yawalapíti. A prominent leader for Brazil’s native peoples, he died from Covid-19, aged 71.

Aritana battled the symptoms of his disease for two weeks, but was unable to recover. And he became one of many indigenous victims of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has rocked the country’s traditional communities. One of Aritana’s 11 children, Tapi Yawalapíti lost his father, uncle, cousin, and grandmother within the space of less than a month.

Speaking to The Brazilian Report, he says that his mission now is to “uphold [his] father’s legacy of defending indigenous lands and the demands of indigenous peoples in Xingu and Brazil.” Aritana represented the interests of 16 indigenous communities in the Alto Xingu region: namely the Kuikuro, Kalapalo, Matipu, Nafukuá, Kamaiurá, Waurá, Aweti, Mehinako, Yawalapíti, Trumai, Ikpeng, Kawaiwete, Judja, Suyá, Naruvutu, and Payuna peoples.

Data from the Health Ministry states that, as of Friday, 23,932 indigenous people have tested positive for Covid-19, with 398 deaths. However, one of the population’s leading representative associations, the Indigenous People’s Articulation (Apib), does not recognize the official counts. Claiming that the Health Ministry has not contemplated indigenous people living in urban regions, Apib’s figures suggest 29,824 cases and 785 deaths.

</p> <p>In a <a href="">statement</a> sent to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, the Health Ministry says it &#8220;does not comment on unofficial surveys,&#8221; but declared that it &#8220;records all cases and deaths by Covid-19 among people living in indigenous villages.&#8221;</p> <p>Officially, Brazil has around 750,000 indigenous people belonging to 305 different ethnicities, living in approximately 5,800 villages. Organizations such as Apib have shown particular concern about isolated or recently contacted indigenous communities, highlighting that the coronavirus pandemic could decimate these villages.</p> <p>Amid criticism of the Jair Bolsonaro government and the treatment it has given the indigenous population, Tapi Yawalapíti denounces the difficulty in accessing any form of medical care. According to Aritana&#8217;s son, the government has not set up any field hospitals in the Alto Xingu region and the closest health clinic is located in the Yawapiti village — with just one doctor — 10 kilometers away. &#8220;We are being forgotten about, abandoned, uncared for. It makes me sad to see my people dying without care, without medicine. One doctor to treat almost 3,000 indigenous people here in the Alto Xingu region. There is no <a href="">land</a> transport. This is the biggest difficulty we have,&#8221; he stated.</p> <p>In accordance with the Health Ministry, 208 primary care units were set up within indigenous villages to provide first aid and identify early symptoms. The department also states that the health district of Xingu received 12 of these basic clinics.</p> <p>Read the main excerpts of <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>&#8216;s interview with Tapi Yawalapíti below:</p> <h2>The arrival of Covid-19 and losses among the community</h2> <p>The first infection happened in July. My whole community was infected and there were five deaths. I lost my cousin, my uncle, my grandmother, and my father. There is only one doctor here, there are no hospitals to admit patients. Xingu is very isolated from the city and there is only one very small health clinic where patients are admitted.</p> <p>Other communities lost their families, their chiefs. They always say they are sad and recovering from the virus, feeling the loss of the whole family. Some lost fathers, mothers, siblings, aunts and uncles.</p> <h2>Fighting the coronavirus</h2> <p>Here in Xingu, there are no field hospitals, nothing. The government hasn&#8217;t done anything. We are really being forgotten here in the forest, no-one gave us support, nothing.</p> <p>We&#8217;re protecting ourselves and <a href="">taking care of ourselves</a>. We have a <em>raizeiro</em> [a traditional healer using remedies made from foraged roots] here who is working to treat the patients. The doctor assesses the patient and, once he is done, the raizeiro takes over. Raizeiros are traditional doctors, they understand everything about roots to treat any symptom of flu, diarrhea, headache.</p> <p>At the moment, my community is recuperating, but the <a href="">virus is passing and the doctor is still monitoring my people</a>, after almost 60 days with the virus in the community. We hope it leaves soon so we can bring the village back to normal.</p> <h2>Impact of Covid-19 on indigenous culture</h2> <p>The worst thing the virus is doing is taking all of our <a href="">elders</a>. For us, elders are like an archive, a book in which we can research culture and history. It&#8217;s so sad to see these older people losing their lives. We have lost books, we have lost wisdom, people that can speak of our culture and traditional education.</p> <p>In my village our culture is well preserved. We still do traditional paintings, sing traditional songs, play instruments like the flute, and use arrows and other traditional crafts. But we have to make our children and young people aware and encourage them to engage in the culture so it is not left abandoned. Our language has to be practiced, as it is part of the culture. If we do not speak our mother tongue we are losing something. This happens with other indigenous peoples who only speak Portuguese. I always tell my people that we need to keep our culture alive.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Defending his father&#8217;s legacy</h2> <p>My father left a legacy for me and it is a great responsibility. He represented 16 indigenous peoples in Xingu, so today I have a lot of responsibility. I have to continue his struggle, speaking and meeting with people like my father would do. He was a spokesperson for the indigenous peoples in Xingu.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Helping the indigenous population</h2> <p>Speaking of the current government, we are being forgotten about, abandoned, uncared for. It makes me sad to see my people dying without care, without medicine. One doctor to treat almost 3,000 indigenous people here in the Alto Xingu region. There is no land transport. This is the biggest difficulty we have.</p> <p>I am not satisfied with what is happening in Xingu, with the entire Brazilian indigenous population. We are asking for help, I am not happy with the government&#8217;s actions to help indigenous people.</p> <p>Sesai was set up to meet the demands of Brazil&#8217;s indigenous people, but so far we haven&#8217;t seen Sesai taking a stance and setting up field hospitals in indigenous villages.</p> <h2>Bolsonaro, indigenous people, and the right to land</h2> <p>We know that the current government has always attacked us with its words, threatening indigenous lands with a view to authorizing mining operations, and exploiting the wealth of these territories. So we do not expect the government to help us. On the contrary, the government wants to destroy the indigenous population. That&#8217;s how I see it. It&#8217;s a lack of respect, we are Brazilian citizens, the first inhabitants of the country. Indigenous people are the true Brazilians and we own this land. <a href="">Since the year 1500</a> we have been threatened.

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Débora Álvares

Débora Álvares has worked as a political reporter for newspapers Folha de S.Paulo, O Estado de S.Paulo, Globo News, HuffPost, among others. She specializes in reporting on Brasilia, working behind-the-scenes coverage at the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches of government.

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