The direct and indirect impact of Covid-19 on people speaking endangered languages in Brazil

This post was contributed by FEL Executive Committee member Sebastian Drude, who is based in Belém, northern Brazil.

Brazil is home to at least 150 Indigenous languages, currently spoken by around 220 groups whose ancestors were there before the arrival of Europeans about 500 years ago. They comprise a total population of less than a million, or under 0.5% of the current Brazilian population. All of these languages, even the largest (Tikuna, with more than 40.000 speakers, and  Kaiwá, with around 25,000 speakers), are to some degree endangered, as they all are under enormous pressure from and being replaced by Portuguese in more and more domains of use.

Endangered languages in Brazil according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in danger

The vulnerability of Indigenous peoples

Because South America was the most isolated continent over many millennia, all its Indigenous people now are survivors of numerous epidemics resulting from outside settlement, including smallpox, measles, and influenza. These diseases were brought to South America from other continents, in particular from Europe, and the inhabitants originally did not have any immunity defence against them. The survivors have either developed some immunity by now, or depend on vaccinations for their well-being.

Many groups have been contacted only over the last 50 years, during a massive expansion into large parts of the Amazon region, promoted in particular by the military dictatorship (1964 to 1985) and by later developmentalist governments, including in particular the current one. For all of these, the Indigenous people were seen as an obstacle. These recently-contacted groups in particular are still recovering – in numbers and culturally – from the dramatic blow that contact with the dominant society has usually meant. In most cases, even with vaccinations, only a fraction of the original group has survived, and much cultural knowledge was lost with the many who died, and important practices were interrupted.

In view of such a scenario, it is obvious that the vulnerability of all Indigenous peoples in Brazil (and their languages and cultures with them) is of special concern during a pandemic. Isolation of these groups is recommended – the more recent the contact, the more vulnerable they are.

Indigenous peoples, Covid-19 and information

There are some initiatives in Brazil that focus on bringing information about the Covid-19 disease and counter-measures like isolation and regular hygiene to the Indigenous people in their own languages. These initiatives are, as far as I can tell, hardly promoted by the government, for instance through its agency FUNAI, which is responsible for Indigenous matters. Indeed, the only mention of Covid-19 on FUNAI’s web-pages is a link to the official site with information in Portuguese by the health ministry (without any special information on the situation pertaining to the Indigenous population), and a refutation of supposed fake-news that FUNAI would have to respond to an official process due to inertia or omission in the pandemic crisis. Instead, FUNAI affirms, “the execution of the activities with a R$10.8 million (approximately $US 2 million) contribution for actions to combat Covid-19 is occurring at an accelerated pace” (my translation). However, apart from some general plans, there is no information about how these funds are actually being used.

We are, therefore, dependent on other sources of information, in particular the well-known Instituto Socio-Ambiental, which is certainly the most prominent Indigenous-support activist NGO in Brazil. Not only does its main website contain many relevant pieces of information related to Covid-19, but it has also set up a special site, monitoring the impact of the disease on Indigenous peoples and providing related information. They are also, in some crucial areas, one of the most prolific agents providing the Indigenous peoples with information in their own languages.

Social activists and the Wayuri Network join in the prevention of Covid-19 campaign in São Gabriel da Cachoeira | photo: Ana Amélia Handam

Side-effects and counter-measures worse than the disease?

When we try to assess the negative impact of the pandemic on Indigenous populations, we may focus on the numbers of (reported) infections and deaths from the disease. Here, by the way, the same caution is in order as with official numbers elsewhere, because in Brazil deaths FROM the disease may not clearly enough be distinguished from (often unrelated) deaths WITH the virus. As tests may not be reliable, and we are informed only of the absolute numbers of people showing a positive result (without putting this in relation to the total number of tests and the selection criteria applied to the people tested), the published numbers in fact may be misleading. The same may be true of the derived assessment of mortality levels and future projections. This holds also in the case of Indigenous peoples – after all, pulmonary diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis have always been among the top causes of sickness and death among this population in Brazil, even before the new virus arrived.

More importantly, focusing only on the Covid-19 numbers is way too narrow. Officially, as of the time of writing, 27 Indigenous people have been confirmed to have contracted the virus in Brazil, and three have died (Indigenous organizations like ABIP, however, claim that there are other unrecorded or unreported cases, and demand better monitoring). But that is just part of the whole picture: There are many other threats to Brazil’s Indigenous peoples during the current pandemic, some of them created by the measures against Covid-19, others exacerbated by them.

The most important agents harming the integrity of Indigenous peoples and their territories are not confined to their homes during quarantine, but are very much active right now. These are the illegal loggers, farmers and estate-agents stealing Indigenous lands, miners (in particular, gold prospectors), and others. With open support by the current government under President Bolsonaro (a blatant ally of agribusiness and mining corporations), their illegal and extremely harmful activities – including the frequent murder of Indigenous leaders who try to resist – have skyrocketed since January 2019.  Now, not only do these harmful agents bring the virus close to Indigenous villages, but they are even more emboldened as everybody else, e.g. the media, is focused on worrying about the pandemic. Many of those who should protect Indigenous peoples are in quarantine or for other reasons not working as necessary, meaning that the opportunities to pursue such criminal activities without any reporting or consequences have grown even more.

In addition, as is the case with many informal workers in Brazil, the quarantine restrictions are harming the Indigenous population who depend on activities in urban areas, such as selling their goods. Economic activities have mostly stopped, but unlike other sectors of Brazilian society, the government’s emergency programme is hard or impossible for Indigenous people to access, because it demands a social security number and a mobile phone, in addition to online-access and reading knowledge of Portuguese in order to apply. Large parts of the Indigenous population, including some living in cities, do not meet some or all of these requirements. Indigenous people thus have to choose between either not applying (and having no emergency income), or seeking help in a nearby town, thereby exposing themselves to the risk of infection, and to the even more severe risk of taking the virus back with them to their home villages. The same holds for necessary activities such as buying food and essential commodities, or receiving payments (wages, pensions, welfare) – for all of these they have to expose themselves to the risk of contracting the virus.

On a positive note: Missionary activity with uncontacted groups banned

For the reasons given above, groups living without any contact with the dominant Brazilian society are the most vulnerable peoples of all, even more so in times of a pandemic. They are, however, the preferred target of fundamentalist Christian missionaries who dream of an ‘untouched fresh slate’ to receive the ‘gospel’. In the past such missionaries have brought much harm to many Indigenous groups, not only by bringing diseases, but also by demonizing their traditional cultures, thereby culturally and socially dividing and weakening them, especially the most recently contacted ones.

Map of uncontacted peoples in Brazil, according to FUNAI

It is, therefore, very worrisome that at the beginning of the pandemic in February 2020 the current government, which has close ties to the quickly growing Fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christian sectors of Brazilian Society, put Ricardo Lopes Dias, a missionary and former member of Ethnos360 (formerly known as the ‘New Tribes Mission’), in charge of the division of FUNAI which is responsible for the protection of uncontacted and recently contacted peoples. This is a blatant conflict of interest.

Amidst this, frankly, terrifying scenario with and around the pandemic, there has now been one piece of positive news: a Brazilian judge has recently blocked evangelical missionaries from approaching uncontacted groups in the Javari Valley, home to the greatest concentration of such peoples anywhere on Earth. Although the decision explicitly refers to the current special circumstances which restrict such religious activities, we can only hope (and demand) that it will be enforced, and extended to other such areas. It is important also that the ban continues after the end of the current acute threat created by the novel corona virus pandemic.

Postscript

In 2019 FEL registered its concern at the avowedly unsympathetic policies of the present Brazilian government towards Brazil’s Indigenous peoples. FEL relies on witnesses such as Sebastian Drude for fair comment on recent events, and presents such comment to readers to inform their own judgement. FEL has no independent validation of this report.

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