Lucas Ribeiro Scaldaferri writes on how the far-right Bolsonaro government in Brazil is using the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to launch a fresh attempt to wipe out Indigenous peoples. This text was originally published on Esquerda Online. Translation by Max Stein.
We are writing this text under the tragic shadow of the health crisis which has already claimed the lives of almost 100,000 Brazilians. But Covid-19 does not attack everyone equally. By paying close attention, we are able to see that those most affected are racialised populations. If in the big cities, Black people are being hit hardest, in the rural inland areas of Brazil’s massive landmass it is Indigenous peoples who are facing the worst onslaught. A genuine genocide is in progress.
When Indigenous leadership figures use public platforms to announce that many people are now suffering a genocide, even those with ‘progressive’ reputations believe this to be an exaggeration. Can it really be all that bad? Isn’t it rather over-the-top to talk about ‘genocide’?
In the 19th and 20th century, genocide was a constant in the policy of the imperialist states on the African and Asian continents. Whole peoples were decimated for the gain of the new system of production that was entrenching itself around the world.
It was with the end of the Second World War that a moral, juridical, and political condemnation of genocide arrived. The horrors of Nazism, and its policies of racist extermination against various white European peoples, startled Western opinion out of its complacency for the first time. Thereafter, in 1948, the United Nations enshrined in international law the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which Brazil has been a signatory of since 1951. Article 3 of the Convention states that not only acts of genocide themselves, but also attempted genocide and complicity in genocide, will be punished.
Article 6 of the 1988 Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, defines genocide in the following way:
For the purpose of this Statute, ‘genocide’ means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The situation of Indigenous peoples, and the actions of the Brazilian state, require everyone’s attention. The Bolsonaro government has refused to provide basic measures to prevent the proliferation of the disease; on the contrary, their negligence has facilitated the spread of the virus. The first case of Covid-19 in the Indigenous population was on 1 April, and was that of an Indigenous healthcare officer who had contact with an infected doctor, who had recently returned from a holiday.
In the midst of the pandemic, Bolsonaro is consciously working to ‘push the envelope’ [in the words of Environment Minister Ricardo Salles who advocated using the pandemic as an opportunity for massive deregulation], in order to carry out an outright genocide The President stands for the interests of agrobusiness, and is moving against the demarcation of Indigenous lands, in favour of those who would invade them. This intention is so brazen that Bolsonaro recently vetoed, in a recent bill (already approved by Congress) to protect Indigenous and Quilombo communities, budgetary provisions for items such as: drinking water, hygiene supplies, emergency food baskets, and crop seeds.
The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), a state organ that is supposed to promote policies in defence of the lives, the culture and the territories of Indigenous peoples, is being dismantled or else placed under the direct control of logging interests. The organisation’s budget for 2020 is only 0.02% of the federal budget, and the conditions applied to this funding are preventing the institution from carrying out its functions at the moment when Indigenous peoples most require them.
The Articulation of the Indigenous People’s of Brazil (APIB) has been working to carry out independent monitoring of the number of infections within Indigenous populations across the country, in order to prove the ongoing genocide. APIB’s data (as of 5 August) show that 148 Indigenous peoples have been affected by the virus, with 22,325 cases confirmed and 633 deaths.
According to COIAB (Coordination of the Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon), 121 Amazonian Indigenous peoples have been hit by Covid-19, with 549 deaths occurring between 89 peoples of the region. The states of Amazonas, Mato Grosso and Pará have been those with the highest number of deaths – 182, 91 and 85 respectively – and are also home to the largest numbers of separate peoples who have been affected – 25, 17, and 15 respectively.
As the main platform monitoring the situation of Brazilian Indigenous peoples during the pandemic has pointed out, coronavirus is not impacting on everyone equally:
Various studies attest to the fact that Indigenous peoples are more vulnerable to pandemics than other groups due to the worse social, economic and health conditions with which they live, which facilitate the spread of diseases. These populations are affected by particular conditions, such as the difficulty of accessing health services, whether due to geographical distance or to other factors like the unavailability or the inadequate numbers of healthcare staff.
It is evidently no exaggeration, then, to assert that a genocide is taking place in Brazil against the Indigenous population. The racist and fascist Jair Bolsonaro government intends to exterminate Indigenous peoples through Covid-19, in order to appropriate their territories and hand these over to mining and agrobusiness interests.
Indigenous August and the fight against genocide
Each year, 9 August is marked as the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. The Indigenous movement is organising a series of activities throughout the month, including a live ‘Indigenous Emergency’ event on that date, with Indigenous leaders, intellectuals and activists, to ‘stimulate national and international solidarity and focus attention on the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic for Brazil’s Indigenous peoples.’ (@midiaindiaoficial)
The Active Solidarity Network (RESOLVA – Rede Solidária Ativa) and Left Online (Portal Esquerda Online) are supporting the Indigenous August initiative and will be carrying out a live event with Indigenous leaders on the subject of ‘Covid-19 and the genocide of Indigenous peoples’, with Chiefs Luiz Katu, Josi Ticuna and Ercilia Tikuna. The meeting will be broadcast by @esquerdaonline and @redesolidariativa platforms on Facebook and YouTube.
For years, those of us in the Black liberation movement in Brazil have worked in near-isolation to decry the genocide aimed at our own youth. Let us not abandon our Indigenous brothers and sisters, but denounce the genocide that they are suffering, and place ourselves in solidarity.
In Britain, online and off-line events are being organised by Brazil Matters to stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples and all others facing the brutality of the Bolsonaro government.