Bolsonaro using virus against indigenous people: leader

by Pascale TROUILLAUD
In this file photo taken on January 16, 2020 indigenous leader Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapo ethnicity poses for a photograph in Piaracu village, near Sao Jose do Xingu, Mato Grosso state, Brazil

The impact of the new coronavirus has spared no one in Brazil, including in the Amazon rainforest, where iconic indigenous leader Raoni Metuktire accuses President Jair Bolsonaro of using the pandemic to eradicate his people.

Known for his colorful feather headdresses and the large disc inserted in his lower lip, chief Raoni is one of the most famous defenders of the Amazon and the indigenous peoples who live there.

Now in his 90s, he has traveled the world raising awareness about the threat posed by deforestation.

But he is riding out the coronavirus pandemic in his village in the heart of the rainforest, where he spoke to AFP by video call.

The chief, a member of the Kayapo ethnicity, did not mince words as he criticized Bolsonaro for the far-right president's treatment of Brazil's indigenous peoples and handling of the pandemic.

"Bolsonaro wants to take advantage of this disease. He's saying, 'Indians have to die, we have to finish them off,'" he said, speaking through an interpreter.

Bolsonaro has faced criticism for pushing to open protected Amazon lands to farming and mining, which he argues would benefit indigenous communities.

Indigenous leaders and activists are skeptical, however, and have condemned the president for some of his comments, including that indigenous people "are becoming more and more human, just like us."

Bolsonaro has likewise faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic, which he continues to downplay even as the number of deaths soars in Brazil.

Indigenous peoples in the Amazon are particularly vulnerable to diseases from the outside world.

There are mounting fears for their safety as the virus surges in Brazil, which has now registered more than 34,000 deaths, the third-highest toll worldwide, after the United States and Britain.

The Amazon region is one of the hardest-hit, including its indigenous inhabitants, who have a COVID-19 mortality rate twice as high as non-indigenous Brazilians.

At least 211 indigenous Brazilians have been killed and 2,178 infected by the virus, according to the Brazilian Indigenous Peoples' Association (APIB).

Human-rights officials from the United Nations and Organization of American States warned Thursday the virus poses a "grave risk" to Amazon indigenous communities.

"This disease called coronavirus is very dangerous. It has starting killing my people, in every region," Raoni said.

But Bolsonaro, he added, "doesn't care about us."

Despite the "shoddy health services" available to his people, the president has done nothing to improve them, he said.

- Blocked aid -

Raoni, who has lobbied world leaders and campaigned with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Cameron and Sting, said he planned to stay in his village, Metuktire, in Brazil's Mato Grosso state, until the danger has receded.

"I will only leave my village when things go back to normal," he said.

"I'm very worried about my people. I tell them to stay in the village, not to go the city... but some of them don't listen."

In some cases, villagers returning home have brought the virus with them. That includes the village of Gorotire, where five residents have died of COVID-19, he said.

French environmental group Amazon Planet has collected 43,000 euros (nearly $50,000) to help indigenous communities observe stay-at-home measures and avoid leaving their villages for food and supplies.

But 10 tonnes of food and hygiene products it is trying to ship to the Kayapo have been blocked in what the group's president, Gert-Peter Bruch, called "a criminal excess of bureaucracy."

- Land grab -

The pandemic forced chief Raoni to cancel a trip to Brasilia, where he was due to pressure officials on another issue vital to indigenous communities, official recognition of their lands.

The Brazilian government's agency for indigenous affairs, FUNAI, recently opened 237 indigenous territories to settlers because they had not been officially recognized by presidential decree.

That land alone covers an area the size of Portugal.

"No, that can't happen," Raoni said.

"Our land cannot be occupied by invaders" -- loggers, farmers and illegal gold-miners, he said.

That brought him back to Bolsonaro.

"He needs to recognize our lands," he said.

In this file photo taken on January 16, 2020 indigenous leader Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapo ethnicity poses for a photograph in Piaracu village, near Sao Jose do Xingu, Mato Grosso state, Brazil