The coronavirus and Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, are jeopardizing the survival of Indigenous peoples and the future of the next human generation.
On Feb. 17, Aruká Juma, the last surviving man of the Juma people in the Brazilian Amazon, died of Covid-19 in a hospital in Pôrto Velho, the capital of Rondônia State, in northern Brazil. Mr. Juma, who was born in the 1930s in a jungle village on the Açuã River roughly 450 miles from the Amazonas State capital, Manaus, represented his community and their world. He was like the giant trees of the Amazon, and he fell.
The story of Mr. Juma is also the story of the world’s largest rainforest. His ancestors and those of other Indigenous groups planted many of the Amazon’s trees before the arrival of European colonists in 1500. As the colonizers harvested their forests for global trade, their people were decimated. Like the Juma people, the Amazon is at risk of extinction.
The overwhelming majority of the Amazon’s Indigenous peoples were wiped out from the 16th to 19th centuries by disease and massacres at the hands of colonizers. In the first half of the 20th century, with the expansion of the rubber trade, mining and agribusiness, dozens of Indigenous groups became extinct.
The Juma’s population was reduced from an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 in the 18th century to about 100 in 1943. In the early 1960s, many of the Juma were systematically executed by land invaders. Some killers made a game of tossing children into the air and impaling them with machetes before they hit the ground. A massacre in 1964 left just seven survivors. None of those responsible have been held accountable for their crimes.
In 1985, after 21 years of civilian-military dictatorship, Brazil returned to democracy. Three years later, a new Constitution deemed that ancestral lands would remain publicly owned but guaranteed Indigenous peoples the exclusive right to their use. The Constitution also established that Indigenous territories would be demarcated within five years. However, because of pressure on various political and economic actors interested in exploiting the Amazon’s riches, the deadline passed, and dozens of peoples are still fighting for demarcation — which is the main source of land conflict in Brazil. It was only in 2004 that Juma land became protected territory.
In 1998 the National Indian Foundation, or Funai, the government agency responsible for Indigenous affairs, moved Mr. Juma, his daughters and an older couple off their more than 38,000 hectares of land in the municipality of Canutama in Amazonas and took them to the larger territory of the Uru Eu Wau Wau, a people who speak a similar language and live in neighboring Rondônia.
The ostensible reason for the relocation was to protect the Juma people from extinction, but the move was not without controversy. Under the Brazilian Constitution, Indigenous people can be removed from their lands only in case of life-threatening disaster or pandemic, and they have the right to return after any risk has passed. Soon after being relocated, the couple struggled to adapt and died, according to the anthropologist Edmundo Antonio Peggion, who researched the Juma at the end of the century. By then, Mr. Juma was the last surviving man of his people.
For 14 years, Mr. Juma fought a legal battle to be sent back to his ancestral land. His daughters married Uru Eu Wau Wau men and had children. In 2012 he and several family members returned to Juma territory. One of his daughters, Mandeí Juma, assumed the post of chief — reflecting a wider trend of Indigenous women leading the fight for the Amazon’s survival.
When Mr. Juma died, a significant piece of the Amazon died along with him. His four daughters and 14 grandchildren are trying to preserve Juma traditions. Some of them have included the Juma name before Uru Eu Wau Wau in their surname — an uncommon practice in Juma’s patrilineal culture. “The government didn’t take care of it, and now we have to ensure my grandfather’s legacy,” one of his grandchildren, Bitaté Uru-eu-wau-wau, 20, told the BBC. “He’s still with us. He lives with us. He represents our people through his grandchildren and his future grandchildren who will come.” Mr. Uru-eu-wau-wau has created a patrol group to help protect Indigenous land from land invaders.
Mr. Juma’s death from Covid-19 is a reminder of how Mr. Bolsonaro and his government have allowed the coronavirus to spread in Indigenous communities and used the national focus on surviving the pandemic to intensify its assault on the Amazon rainforest — and further weaken environmental protections.
During his 2018 presidential campaign, Mr. Bolsonaro, whose base includes miners, loggers and others willing to destroy the Amazon for profit, promised to open up the Amazon to soybean production, cattle ranching, mining and the construction of railways and highways. He also promised not to demarcate “one centimeter” more of Indigenous land.
According to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, from August 2019 to July 2020, 4,280 square miles of the Amazon were deforested — an area slightly smaller than Connecticut. In February, as the pandemic continued to rage, Mr. Bolsonaro presented a draft bill in Congress to legalize mining on protected land. If passed, the law would unleash destruction.
In July 2020, Mr. Bolsonaro even vetoed provisions of a law to guarantee Indigenous people emergency health care and other basic tools to cope with the pandemic, such as drinking water and access to information. In August, Congress overturned his veto. Just recently, the Supreme Court approved some measures in his emergency health plan for Indigenous communities. His previous three proposals were rejected for not being comprehensive enough.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration has also done little or nothing to remove what is believed to be a primary carrier of infection in the Amazon: tens of thousands of illegal miners. At least 20,000 miners are estimated to occupy Yanomami territory, in Amazonas and nearby Roraima State.
In a public letter, Indigenous organizations have denounced the Bolsonaro administration for failing to build a sanitary barrier to protect the highly vulnerable Juma people from exposure, as the Supreme Court ordered. If a sanitary barrier had been in place, we might not have lost Mr. Juma. In February, the investigative news agency Amazônia Real reported that Mr. Juma was treated with azithromycin, ivermectin and other medications that, while widely distributed by the Bolsonaro government, the World Health Organization says are ineffective in treating Covid-19.
Unless the international community acts fast, the broader politics responsible for the conditions of Mr. Juma’s death could portend the demise of the Amazon rainforest.
The destruction of the forest not only jeopardizes the fight against the climate emergency; it also compromises efforts to bring the pandemic under control. The Amazon is an important global repository of carbon and airborne viruses, and if it continues to be destroyed, the planet could see a higher concentration of carbon in the atmosphere and more pandemics. Studies have shown pathogens are more likely to jump from animal hosts to humans in deforested areas and then spread to urban settlements than they are in healthy, biodiverse forests, which act as a natural barrier for diseases.
Brazil has had one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks, and Mr. Bolsonaro is turning one of the planet’s largest carbon sinks into a source of emissions. In a world suffering from disease and climate chaos, it is not just the future of the Juma people that is at stake, but the future of the next human generation.
Eliane Brum (@brumelianebrum) is a journalist, a writer and a documentary filmmaker who lives in the Amazon rainforest. She is the author of “The Collector of Leftover Souls: Field Notes on Brazil’s Everyday Insurrections.” This essay was translated by Diane Grosklaus-Whitty from the Portuguese.