Fears over "perfect storm" in the Amazon rainforest

Deforestation, forest fires and Covid-19 are all serious threats to vulnerable indigenous groups in the Amazon. The combination of all three is disastrous.

This unique image of isolated indigenous people was taken with a large zoom lens from a small plane flying over the Amazon in 2010. These people have no immunity against disease from the outside world. Foto: FUNAI

The authorities in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon rainforest, are now building mass graves in a desperate attempt to get contamination and death tolls under control. The coronavirus epidemic has taken hold in one of Brazil’s most isolated urban centres, which is also the gateway for travel into remote areas of the Amazon. 

A large proportion of the more than two million inhabitants in Manaus are indigenous. Poverty, malnutrition and numerous displaced people, in combination with an underfunded health system does not make the city resilient to the epidemic.

Brazil is now the country with the second highest number of registered cases in the world, with over 27.000 dead from Covid-19. The Amazon region is regarded as one of the hardest hit areas. Rainforest Foundation Norway receives daily updates from partners in Brazil, and it is now estimated that at least 925 people belonging to vulnerable indigenous groups have caught the virus.

– The yearly burning of deforested areas to clear land for crops and cattle is expected to start in only a few weeks. This year we fear that the fires will come even more out of control than previously. That, in combination with the fast spreading of the coronavirus, may lead to a humanitarian catastrophe we have not seen the likes of before, director of Rainforest Foundation Norway, Øyvind Eggen, warns.

Opening up for deforestation

Brazil’s government has undermined efforts to protect the rainforest and its inhabitants. Environmental enforcement and rules protecting the rainforest and indigenous peoples are systematically being dismantled. While the country is busy fighting Covid-19, the government is attempting to push through new rules which would weaken safeguards against the invasion of indigenous lands and the deforestation of the Amazon. 

A bill awaiting congressional approval and new rules at the indigenous agency FUNAI effectively legalise land grabbing in protected forests and indigenous reserves. Another controversial bill that would allow commercial mining on protected indigenous lands is currently on hold, but remains an imminent threat. 

Funding for public environmental and indigenous government agencies such as the environmental police IBAMA and FUNAI is cut, their authority weakened and key environmental officials have been sacked. Fewer forest guards from the environmental police go out in the field to follow up reports and suspicions of illegal activities, partly due to lack of resources, and partly due to the coronavirus lockdown.

Many know to take advantage of the situation and an estimated 20 000 gold diggers have illegally invaded the largest indigenous reserve of Brazil - a territory the size of Portugal. The rising value of gold and failing incomes during the pandemic serve to increase the likelihood for more invasions. 

Rainforest Foundation Norway’s partner organisations ISA (Instituto Socioambiental) and Hutukara fear that the invaders will spread the virus through their illegal activities and cause a humanitarian disaster for the circa 26 000 inhabitants of the Yanomami indigenous reserve. They demand that all invaders immediately be removed.

Increased contagion risk for isolated groups

Brazil has one of the world’s largest number of uncontacted indigenous groups in the world, somewhere between 77 and 84 groups are estimated to have their home under the canopies of the Amazon. Without immunity against diseases from the outside world, these groups are extremely vulnerable.

– History has shown how disastrous it can be when indigenous people are exposed to respiratory diseases from the outside world. A vicious respiratory virus like Covid-19 can mean a near extinction of a large proportion of the last completely isolated indigenous groups in the world, Eggen says.

According to the Brazilian Institute of Space Research (INPE), deforestation in Brazil has increased by 55 percent during the first four months of 2020, compared to the same period last year. Coincidentally, less rain is forecast for the dry season, which usually spans from May to September. Areas that have been deforested during the rainy season are traditionally burned during the dry season to clear the land for cattle and farming.

INPE now fears that this year’s fires, which are expected to start next month, may turn out to be worse than last year's disastrous wildfires. This will not only release large carbon storages and destroy important water reservoirs, it will also fill the air with smoke.

– Areas close to last year’s wildfires saw a significant increase in hospitalisation of people with lung problems. We fear that the coronavirus outbreak will peak at the same time as the forest fires are at their wildest. The combination aggravates both the symptoms for patients and the pressure on hospitals, Øyvind Eggen continues.

Forest fires in Brazil peaked in August last year, when this photograph was taken. This year's fires might be even worse. Photo: Bruno Kelly/Rainforest Foundation Norway

Killings of environmental activists

Indigenous people in the Amazon have over the last year felt increasingly vulnerable and several indigenous leaders who have spoken out against attacks on the forest and their livelihoods have gained international media attention. However, the increased visibility can be dangerous. Several environmental activists have been killed in the last year. Lawlessness during the coronavirus lockdown has increased and many fear for the life of environmental activists.

In April, Zezico Guajajara, a teacher and outspoken forest defender from the large indigenous group Guajajara, was found dead near his village. He is the fifth victim in the last six months. In a statement reported by the BBC, the indigenous leader Olimpio Guajajara wrote:

"We are mourning his death. We are protecting the forest for all humanity, but powerful forces are out to kill us."

Norway must use its position

Norway has a unique position in Brazil, both as a supporter in the work to protect the rainforest, and as a long standing trade partner and large investor through state owned Norwegian companies. Rainforest Foundation Norway's director Øyvind Eggen thinks Norway has a responsibility and is calling for action.

– Brazil's government is failing in both protecting the rainforest and its own population against the virus. The Norwegian government can not accept this, but so far we have seen little action. Norway must contribute with diplomatic efforts to influence Brazil to do more to stop the spreading of the virus to vulnerable indigenous groups, he says and continues:

– Norwegian businesses must realise their responsibility and make sure that trade and investment with Brazil is based on suppliers who do not engage in deforestation. We do not want to be a part of value chains that start with deforestation and human rights violations.