Many world leaders are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to expand their powers and further their agendas, including in Hungary, Egypt and the U.S. In Brazil, the virus is emboldening a far-right leader, posing a deadly threat to the country’s indigenous communities and exacerbating deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

Since Bolsonaro took office, deforestation has progressed at a startling rate, with 51% more area deforested between January and March 2020 than in the same period last year. In this increasingly permissive environment, illegal loggers, miners and even missionary groups have intensified their activities in the Amazon. Now, they could be spreading the coronavirus to vulnerable indigenous communities.

So far, 16 indigenous people are confirmed to have had COVID-19, and three have died, including a 15-year-old Yanomami boy, a 78-year-old Tikuna man and a 44-year-old Kokama woman. The Amazonas state, home to most of the country’s indigenous people, has at least 2,888 cases — the highest number of coronavirus cases per capita in Brazil, and the country’s fifth-highest total. The state capital, Manaus, has reported that its hospitals are collapsing under the caseload and are in desperate need of ventilators, protective equipment and gravediggers.

While there is no widespread immunity to the novel coronavirus, Brazil’s indigenous populations are particularly vulnerable. Most indigenous communities lack drinkable running water, and live days-long journeys away from even poorly-equipped hospitals. Tuberculosis, malaria and malnutrition are also more prevalent among these communities.

“We don’t have enough doctors for what could happen here,” said Maria Betania, representing the Roraima Indigenous Council, to Al Jazeera.

Outsiders have carried diseases into indigenous territory in the past, often with catastrophic consequences. Illegal gold miners brought measles to the Yanomami community in the 1960s and 1980s, wiping out half of the population. Imported respiratory diseases also halved the Uru Eu Wau Wau population in the 1980s.

Bolsonaro is dismissive of the coronavirus, having called it “a little flu,” joined anti-lockdown rallies and fired his health minister. These actions have contributed to the country’s large number of cases, which Brazilian researchers claim is over 280,000, far more than the official tally of 43,000. And throughout the crisis, Bolsonaro has only amped up efforts to open the Amazon to development

Bolsonaro’s election in January 2019 emboldened miners and loggers to increase their encroachments on indigenous lands. This February, he sent a bill to Congress that would legalize mining operations, oil and gas exploration and hydropower plants on indigenous lands, with no ability for communities to veto projects. Bolsonaro also lopped 40% off this year’s budget for the Brazilian National Indian Foundation, the federal agency in charge of protecting indigenous legal rights, and attempted to eliminate fines for rainforest development projects. And when squatters clear and sell protected land, there are numerous legal routes for them to gain legitimate ownership over the plots.

Moreover, the federal government’s environmental protection arm, Ibama, recalled personnel that usually enforce anti-logging and forest preservation laws. As a result, Amazona residents have reported more incursions by miners in recent weeks and a continued trend of violence against their communities. Although the vice president has given lip service to increased enforcement, the current crisis and Bolsonaro’s commitment to squeezing profits out of the rainforest fail to uphold protections for indigenous people enshrined in the Brazilian constitution.

“Indigenous people don’t lobby, don’t speak our language, and yet today they manage to have 14 percent of our national territory ... One of their intentions is to hold us back,” Bolsonaro said last August.

But Bolsonaro isn’t unique in his dismissal of indigenous people, said Walther Maradiegue, a PhD candidate in Northwestern’s Spanish and Portuguese department. The Brazilian government has historically portrayed the Amazon as “empty of people” and full of wealth.

“Indigenous peoples in Brazil, by showing that they have been there forever ..., and they are planning to be there in the future, they challenge these national narratives of the Amazon as an empty place, as an available space for the economic development of the Brazilian nation,” said Maradiegue, who is also a fellow at Northwestern’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research.

This month, one coalition of indigenous groups successfully stopped an evangelical Christian missionary group from entering the Javari Valley region, citing fear of the coronavirus. A court authorized the use of military and police force to remove the missionaries.

Indigenous communities are also closing off entrances to their land, sometimes with the support of federal police, according to Bloomberg. Brazilian Justice Minister Sergio Moro texted the news agency, “Agents are keeping the communities isolated, distributing portions of pantry goods and doing whatever possible to impede both indigenous people from leaving their tribes and outsiders from entering the communities.” He added that government workers are using masks and gloves in their interactions with indigenous communities.

But it might not be enough. The COVID-19-induced economic downturn will drive down demand for timber and minerals, perhaps disincentivizing loggers and miners from clearing more indigenous lands. However, as poor Brazilians struggle to make ends meet, many could target the Amazon for subsistence agriculture, posing a new threat to indigenous peoples.

Northwestern political science professor Karen Alter said she’s hopeful about human rights in the long run, as court cases against the Brazilian government begin to crop up. She called the Inter-American System of the Organization of American States, which protects human rights across the OAS’ 35 members, “probably the most effective international legal review for indigenous rights.”

Not only can the system fine violating countries, it can also order restorative remedies, where a government must actively fix the problem. “[Law] is a slow process,” Alter admitted. But, she said, “the case will appear and ... there will be a ruling.”

Nevertheless, there needs to be an indigenous population left alive after the global pandemic that can have its rights restored. As a far-right lawmaker in 1998, Bolsonaro lamented that Brazilian forces hadn’t been as “competent” in “decimat[ing] its Indians” as the United States.

Alter noted that in the U.S., many claim that it’s too late to restore anything to Native Americans, since much of the population and land has been destroyed. But, she said, “That’s not the situation in the Amazon, where there are still active indigenous groups and areas” — for the time being.

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