An interview with two indigenous leaders about their communities’ reactions to COVID-19.
Voices from the Ground: COVID-19 Response in Roraima, Brazil
This week, Junior Nicacio Farias Wapichana, Legal Advisor for the Indigenous Council of Roraima (Conselho Indígena de Roraima – CIR), spoke with Rainforest Foundation US about how indigenous peoples across the northern state of Roraima, Brazil, are taking measures to prevent the impact of COVID-19 on their communities.
Rainforest Foundation US: What are you hearing about how COVID-19 is affecting the region where you live?
Junior Nicacio: As of the latest report from the government, 49 positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the state of Roraima and 1 death: a driver for the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (Secretaria Especial de Saude Indigena – SESAI). We have also received word of the first indigenous person who tested positive to COVID-19: a young Yanomami currently in Boa Vista, who at first tested negative but after a second round of testing came back positive and is now being monitored (1).
Rainforest Foundation US: How is information on COVID reaching your communities?
Junior Nicacio: CIR held our General Assembly that ended March 14, 2020, where community members first got an understanding of the depth of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, our leadership decided to halt all fieldwork and focus 100% on the pandemic response.
Among some of the actions we have been taking are producing short videos, writing stories and preparing infographics on preventative measures in language that can work for our communities. We post these on social media and on our website; several communities have internet in their villages so this information is being disseminated virtually. Since so many communities receive the majority of their news over the radio, we have made radio programming a priority. We also have indigenous health care agents stationed in the communities who are helping to spread the word in our languages.
Our priority here is to get accurate information out about prevention and raise awareness among local community members in ways that work for them.
Rainforest Foundation US: What is the feeling circulating among community members about this situation?
Junior Nicacio: We are worried and concerned about the quickly-evolving situation around COVID-19 and, like everyone, wondering how long this is going to last.
We work directly with 246 indigenous communities in the state, and indirectly with many more. All have closed access into their territories. Cooperation between leaders and community monitoring teams led them to take the decision to close communities to the outside and actively monitor their entryways. Most territories have closed indefinitely, only allowing access for the most urgent needs.
We are most worried about the villages that have towns nearby – some are only 10-15 kilometers away – because there is easier access to those communities.
All of the villages are now going into voluntary isolation because life in our communities is collective, making it possible for the virus to spread quickly if it were to get in.
Rainforest Foundation US: What risks are you seeing COVID-19 presents for your communities?
Junior Nicacio: Some of our communities lie on the border of Venezuela and Guyana. Brazil officially closed border to those countries. However, some of our communities need to travel through Venezuela in order to get basic goods to their communities, so find themselves in a very difficult situation due to the border closing. This is the same with some communities bordering Guyana. These communities have found themselves cut off from some of the basic supplies they depend on, due to the closed borders.
Wapichana communities on both sides of the Guyana and Brazil border – because many of us have relatives or close family members on the other side – made a mutual agreement to close the border between our territories to prevent garimpeiros (wildcat miners) from crossing from Brazil into Guyana through our lands.
Another issue arising around communities that have closed their borders is an increase in threats from farmers who run large-scale agricultural operations and usually pass through our territories to get to their fields.
This happened recently in Truaru village, which is on the way to a large-scale soy plantation. When entry was barred, the operators grew angry. They even brought in the military police to pressure the community to open their border. The leaders explained that their passage through their lands posed a serious risk to their peoples’ health, and stood firm. A similar incident occurred near the village of Moscou, where the military police were again called in to apply pressure. The communities have had to explain they are following recommendations of the Ministry of Health in order to stop the spread of the new coronavirus in our communities.
CIR is encouraging all community leaders to stand firm in protecting their territories at this time. The farmers can take other roads to get to where they need to go. But the threats keep coming in.
Rainforest Foundation US: How are you seeing that the new coronavirus may be impacting—for better or worse—the existing threats to your communities?
Junior Nicacio: One of the main issues we have in our territories is illegal mining, which has not stopped due to coronavirus. In fact, it has increased.
On April 1st in Raposa Serra do Sol, community monitoring teams removed mining equipment and boats that the miners use to conduct their activities. The community leaders informed government authorities, including the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio – FUNAI, the agency of the Brazilian federal government responsible for indigenous affairs) and the army, of what they were doing and that they were setting up a surveillance post on the Cotingo River that runs through their territory.
They will intensify their monitoring of the area and remove miners on their own, if they have to. They are worried that not only not only is mining illegal, creating a number of environmental problems that already affect the health of the river and nearby communities, but the miners can carry the virus, putting communities at even greater risk.
Rainforest Foundation US: How are you experiencing your government’s response to COVID-19, particularly as it relates to indigenous peoples’ reality in Roraima?
Junior Nicacio: The leaders of our communities informed government officials of our concerns around mining at our assembly in early March. But we have not seen them take action. That is why the community leaders along the Cotingo River took the initiative to confront the miners themselves, informing FUNAI of their actions every step of the way. They expressed their concern for this approach because the miners are armed and dangerous, but it was the community’s decision. They needed to take action to protect themselves.
To date, the state government of Roraima has not issued an emergency response plan to COVID-19 that responds specifically to indigenous peoples’ situation and concerns. There are 70,000 indigenous peoples in our state, with no government-backed plan to protect them.
There is a differentiated approach within the federal health system specific to indigenous peoples. We have health posts staffed with trained health professionals – doctors, nurses, etc. – who work with indigenous health agents to provide appropriate health care to our communities. Usually, those professionals rotate every 15 days, but CIR has recommended against that at this time. So, they are staying in place, working with indigenous health care agents to continue to provide services and information on the virus to the communities.
Beyond all that was mentioned before, CIR continues putting pressure and advocating for the communities’ needs. We continue to see similar issues in different communities without a response that is specific to indigenous peoples. We do not know how the government’s benefit program is going to reach our communities. CIR is advocating for a more urgent and human response—not only for indigenous peoples but non-indigenous peoples as well.
Rainforest Foundation US: What are your community’s needs and priorities at this time to confront the pandemic?
Junior Nicacio: Our isolation is a collective isolation. We have our own way of preventing a pandemic in our communities and it starts with taking all of the measures recommended within the community, while also preventing people from coming and going between the towns and villages.
Our question is: How long can we resist?
Our communities have fish, they have meat, and some local crops. But they need complementary food. They need medical supplies and services, especially for the elders. We cannot be taking them to hospitals for treatment at this point, so we need to be able to treat them at home.
Meanwhile, there is a shortfall of personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer in Boa Vista. We are told there is more arriving next week but we are already worried that this will be too late. There are over 200 of our leaders working on the front lines at road barriers, stopping cars, putting themselves at risk. Personal protective equipment and disinfection supplies are urgently needed. For now, CIR has started using homemade masks. But we still need medical grade personal protective equipment, especially to protect communities and leaders, in the event that positive COVID-19 cases reach our communities.
We have a fundraiser in place to help us secure the resources required to outfit our communities to protect themselves and to respond to emergency needs as they arise.
Rainforest Foundation US: What is giving you hope and strength to confront the challenges of this time?
Junior Nicacio: What gives me hope and strength is our unity. The whole CIR team is united in our concern for the risks that COVID-19 presents to our communities and are working on the front lines to support them in their preparations. I am encouraged by the leaders working day and night at the road barriers.
My hope lies in our unity against the pandemic, working to prevent spread in our communities. We are ready to fight. We are following all recommendations so we do not have to pay too high a price. The result we want is to have no communities affected. We are here to protect life.
(1) This interview was conducted on Wednesday 8 April and on the following day it was released that the young Yanomami Junior mentioned had passed away due to complications arising from his COVID-19 infection. More on this case can be found here.
COVID-19 is straining the Embera and Wounaan peoples of the Darien as the threat of deforestation in their territories creeps higher.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has called on Brazil to address the COVID-19 pandemic in the Yanomami Territory.
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