The novel coronavirus poses a deadly threat to the indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest. But Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is doing nothing to protect them, says the former head of the government authority responsible for their protection.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Possuelo, what would be the consequences if the coronavirus began spreading among the indigenous peoples of Brazil?
Sydney Possuelo: Since the discovery of the American continent, viruses have been the largest killer. Indigenous populations that have little or no contact with white people are extremely vulnerable to all kinds of infections. Every contagion is extremely dangerous for them, much more so than for us.
DER SPIEGEL: Why is that?
Possuelo: Prior to the discovery of America by the Europeans, there were no contagious diseases here like influenza, tuberculosis or malaria. They were first brought in by Europeans and Africans. Because the bodies of isolated indigenous peoples don’t produce antibodies, they don’t have even the slightest resistance against pathogens like the coronavirus.
About Sydney Possuelo
Sydney Possuelo, 79, was head of Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) from 1991 to 1993. He then headed the department of isolated tribes until his dismissal in 2006. He is considered one of the leading experts on indigenous tribes in the Amazon region and has been honored with numerous international prizes, including the National Geographic Society’s gold medal and the “Bartolomé de Las Casas,” awarded by the King of Spain.
DER SPIEGEL: What tribes are facing the greatest danger?
Possuelo: That would be the indigenous populations that have sporadic contact with white people. Those that commute between the rain forest and cities, and are thus at far greater risk of becoming infected. We are talking here about 600,000 to 700,000 people whose immune systems are so weak that cases in which the illness only causes mild symptoms would likely be extremely rare. It would be even worse, though, if peoples that are still completely isolated were to become infected. It wouldn’t be the first time that a virus like this wiped out entire tribes. Measles, for example, produced catastrophic effects in the past. There have also been flu outbreaks that led to deadly pneumonia.
DER SPIEGEL: Have the indigenous populations received sufficient information about the danger the virus poses?
Possuelo: I am very concerned. In April, we celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, when thousands of them usually come to Brasília and other large cities. The risk of becoming infected in such a situation is immense. Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) should be launching an information campaign and they should be meeting with NGOs who work with indigenous peoples on site. Warnings from health services should be going out to the indigenous populations and they should be equipped with knowledge and material. But I’m hearing nothing!
DER SPIEGEL: This week, FUNAI authorized their local representatives to establish contact with isolated indigenous communities if it was “necessary because of the virus.” Many people have said the order is akin to genocide.
Possuelo: For me, it seems like an attempt by the president of FUNAI to shield himself of all blame should the indigenous people tribes become infected and die. He is essentially pushing responsibility onto the shoulders of his subordinates. But to avoid any misunderstanding: Since the founding of the republic, there has never been a moment as difficult for indigenous peoples as the one they are now facing. Earlier, there were always isolated problems, but today’s government is pursuing a systematic policy of extermination. The government of President Jair Bolsonaro has dismantled the entire institutional and legal framework for protecting indigenous tribes.
DER SPIEGEL: Could you be more specific?
Possuelo: The government has slashed the FUNAI budget and appointed people from the agriculture industry to key positions. That stands in contradiction to FUNAI’s mission. According to the constitution, the state is responsible for the protection and well-being of the indigenous peoples. As long as they are isolated in the jungle, the tribes alone are responsible for their lives. But as soon as they establish contact with us, they are dependent on a government that is not theirs and one they don’t understand. They are at the mercy of the government’s decisions. The Brazilian state established indigenous lands so that they could live there according to their own values and traditions, but now, exactly the opposite is happening: The government wants to open the reserves to industrial agriculture, mining, the forestry industry and gold exploration. The protective areas will be subject to the same destructive process as the rest of the Amazon region. To do so, the government is systematically destroying FUNAI.
DER SPIEGEL: Recently, Bolsonaro appointed a former evangelical missionary to head up the FUNAI department responsible for isolated and recently contacted tribes. Critics have seen that as an additional threat to the indigenous peoples.
Possuelo: That is true of all churches, but particularly of the evangelicals. They want to bring “the word of God” to the indigenous people. The government has given missionaries de facto access to the indigenous communities. That won’t just destroy everything that we have developed, but it also represents an enormous risk factor for the further spread of the virus – even to those indigenous communities that live in relative isolation in the jungle.
DER SPIEGEL: Would it be possible to completely isolate the indigenous lands?
Possuelo: Yes, if these areas were adequately marked and if there were guards posted along the rivers. Air traffic would also have to be monitored, because these areas are only accessible via the rivers or by air. When I was head of the department for isolated tribes, we used armed units to completely block access to the Javari River region, where most isolated indigenous tribes live. Now, though, these units have been reduced such that they can hardly block those wanting to enter the region.
DER SPIEGEL: How do indigenous peoples who are largely isolated react to vaccines and medical treatments?
Possuelo: It’s not easy. Let me give you an example: When we established contact with the Arara tribe, for which I was responsible, we thought we were prepared for everything. We had set up a tent in the forest for treatments, we had all the drugs we might need, we were accompanied by a doctor and a nurse and even had a helicopter at our disposal to fly out those who fell ill. I thought everything would turn out just fine, but I was wrong. When some indigenous people grew ill after contact was established, they didn’t come to us but ran into the forest to look for medicinal herbs. We followed them with our medicines, but it was too late and three or four of them died. That was a shock for me, a terrible lesson. That was the moment when I grew convinced that we should avoid all contact with these peoples if possible.
DER SPIEGEL: What presents the greatest danger to the indigenous tribes: the coronavirus or Bolsonaro?
Possuelo: Let’s just say that coronavirus will likely disappear at some point. Bolsonaro, though, will be in office for another three years.