The COVID-19 emergency in the Amazon is escalating dramatically. A new strain of the virus has overwhelmed and debilitated the public health system in Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas in Brazil, and it is spreading quickly across the Amazon, threatening Indigenous and forest peoples protecting the rainforest and the climate for our collective future.
Over the last few weeks, Indigenous Amazonian leaders once again have expressed deep concern and outrage at government negligence and discrimination against Indigenous peoples as the virus continues to spread. In a declaration on January 19, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) urged governments to ensure equal access to medical care and vaccines for Indigenous peoples with free, prior, and informed consent. While vaccine plans are underway in Amazonian countries, they do not prioritize Indigenous peoples.
Amazon Watch is responding to the Indigenous health emergency in several ways. As a founding member of the Amazon Emergency Fund, an alliance of Indigenous, NGO, and donor allies responding to the COVID-19 emergency, we are working closely with allies to amplify the calls of Indigenous peoples and raise crucial funds. At least $5 million is urgently needed to cover the immediate needs across the Amazon, including oxygen, rapid-response and traditional health care, food and medical kits, prevention (PPE and vaccines), transportation, logistics, and communications. We are also prioritizing food and economic sovereignty projects led by women.
José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, of the Wakuenai Kurripaco people in Venezuela and General Coordinator of COICA, said at a virtual press conference last week, "The governments of the region have failed all the inhabitants of the Amazon, both the Indigenous peoples and the rest of us who live in the [Amazon] Basin. More than 1,775,000 cases and more than 42,000 deaths speak to the magnitude of the ineptitude and disinterest of our leaders."
The Brazilian government is intentionally negligent, and its lack of action has been decried as a deliberate strategy to spread the virus, according to a study by Conectas Direitos Human and the Center for Research and Studies of Health Law of the School of Public Health of the University of São Paulo. Last year, in Brazil alone more than 30,000 cases were registered in 140 Indigenous nations, more than 730 suspected cases, and almost 750 deaths in 107 Indigenous nations in the Amazon, according to official data and that collected by Indigenous grassroots organizations.
Combined with the intentional destruction of Indigenous territories by deforestation, industrial development, and arson, the spread of COVID-19 is more than a public health emergency: it is ethnocide. To hold Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro accountable, last week Indigenous chiefs Raoni Metukire and Almir Surui filed charges of crimes against humanity against Bolsonaro at the International Criminal Court.
Due to the inaction and discrimination by Amazonian governments, Indigenous peoples have called upon international allies to show solidarity at this critical moment to protect Indigenous rights and lives. They have called on allies – including Amazon Watch – to unite and work together to raise awareness and solidarity funding to ensure medicine, oxygen tanks, logistics, and communication channels are available to serve the most vulnerable populations.
In response, we are also closely coordinating with COIAB and the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB). COIAB presented a proposal for $2.3 million for COVID-19 emergency relief and prevention to allies. We have pledged to contribute to this call for solidarity and we are also disbursing other funds via our Amazon Defenders Fund, in close coordination with Indigenous peoples. Since June 2020, we have disbursed $359,000 to Indigenous communities and organizations. So far in 2021, we have committed over $200,000 to the COVID-19 health emergency and we are committed to mobilizing and deploying an additional $500,000 in the coming months.
We are also coordinating closely with NGO allies including Expedicionarios de Saude, Greenpeace Brasil, Avaaz, and Rainforest Action Network to provide logistical and communications support. For example, as the requests for oxygen increased over the last few weeks, we purchased 100 oxygen concentrators, as well as food and medical kits for Indigenous towns and villages outside of Manaus, including São Jose da Cachoeira. The logistics of getting oxygen concentrators to remote villages are challenging. Funds and swift coordination are required, as we did in solidarity with the Kayapo and Munduruku peoples last spring. Support for Indigenous health centers and traditional medicine is critical for the prevention of the virus and so no one needs to travel outside of villages for healthcare.
While our efforts are primarily focused on responding to the epicenter of the health crisis in Brazil right now, we know that the new strain of the virus is spreading across the Amazon Basin. It has already reached the Loreto province in Peru and the Napo province in Ecuador. The Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) has called for international borders to be closed to prevent the further spread of the virus.
"This pandemic is killing our brothers and sisters – our leaders – throughout the Amazon and if they don't help us defend it, we are going to disappear. We ask the wealthy countries to help us with financial resources to strengthen the Amazon Emergency Fund. We need at least $5 million for medicine and food, and to deliver resources to the Indigenous peoples of the nine countries that make up the Amazon Basin. We need help from all wealthy nations, from presidents, friends, and civil organizations. Otherwise, our sisters and brothers will have to go out and expose themselves to new infections," concluded Tomas Candia Yusupi, from the Chiquitano people, president of CIDOB at last week's press conference organized by COICA and the Amazon Emergency Fund.
While we are responding and mobilizing resources for immediate action, much more support is urgently needed to respond to and prevent further spread from the new COVID-19 strain. The world must rise and respond to this crisis if we are to prevent more deaths. We cannot afford to lose one more Indigenous elder or child. It has been a year since the start of the pandemic and every day the world's leaders fail to halt the crisis in Indigenous communities brings us closer to losing the Amazon, and with it our collective future.