Covid-19 threatens rainforests : „Brazil's Indigenous Peoples have retreated to the most remote corners of their territories“

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Indigenous midwife Moy from Satere Mawe ethnicity, attends a protest demanding the entrance of traditional healers and better medical care at the Hospital Nilton Lins in Manaus. Bild: Reuters

Fires in the Amazon will add fuel to threats already endangering the Yanomami and other guardians of the rainforests. The tragic Covid-19 pandemic, exacerbated by thousands of illegal miners exapnding into the forests, add to the humanitarian crises.

          3 Min.

          Fire season in the Amazon rainforest does not open with a political proclamation. Nor does it end with a parade. But everyone in the region knows how this calendar operates. Deforestation and fires in 2019 reached a record high in a decade and continued to rise in 2020. 

          A high-profile new report, released on June 2. confirms that Brazil was responsible for more than one-third of all loss of tropical primary forests in 2019. The authors identified a particularly troubling trend  that most press accounts missed--deforestation of primary forests protected by the indigenous territories has risen dramatically, most of it fueled by illegal land grabbers,   

          At the start of this year’s fire season in the Amazon, with COVID-19 tearing through Brazil, Indigenous Amazonians face threats from all sides. A recent study showed that 3.7% of indigenous people in 21 Amazonian cities tested positive for COVID-19, in comparison to only 0.6% among whites, an alarming trend.  

          Leaders of indigenous organizations in Brazil last week launched a campaign to demand the expulsion of illegal miners, in order to curb the impact of the COVID-19 virus in the northern Brazilian Amazon. There are currently 20,000 illegal miners operating on the lands of the Yanomami, leading to fears the communities will be infected by contact with the outsiders.

          Like the Yanomami, many of Brazil's Indigenous Peoples have retreated to the most remote corners of their territories, worried about this plague from the outside world.  It is not so long ago that exposing communities to pathogens like measles and smallpox was a strategy used by colonizers to gain access to new lands. Current policies introduced by Brazil’s current government, added to concerns about the pandemic, have raised old fears and led to the call for desperate measures.  

           And yet these risks threaten populations far beyond the forests of the Amazon. 

          The strong spiritual and cultural values of Indigenous Amazonians have protected tropical forests and biodiversity for centuries. Their way of life  benefits us all, in a modern world that seems diametrically opposed to an equilibrium developed and often passed down from one generation to another.  

          Message from the Yanomani.
          Message from the Yanomani. : Bild: Victor Moriyama/ISA

          Trees are cleared for new cattle pasture, soybean farms, mines, hydropower projects, or felled by brazen land speculators or illegal loggers. With drier seasonal weather now arriving in all of the southern Amazon, any clearing—legal or illegal—raises the risk of fires. These not only destroy more hectares of forest, but release dense smoke plumes that threaten the health of children, the elderly, and people already suffering from respiratory diseases—including conditions generated by COVID-19.   

          Worldwide, we’re facing a mass extinction of plants, animals and microorganisms; we risk losing one million species at an insane speed. Left intact, nature can provide us with a safety net against disease, hunger, while slowing economic development. Instead, we’re destroying it in an effort to tame it. 

          If done sustainably, the way we farm, use our soils, protect coastal ecosystems and manage our forests can help us live longer and healthier lives, while providing us with greater opportunities.

          Weakening nature’s protective powers makes us vulnerable to deadly viruses, bacteria and other pathogens that spread from animals to people. Cutting down forests, building roads and extending our cities at a rapid rate destroys countless animal habitats, exposing us to disease-causing pathogens that remain self-contained in nature when it is left undisturbed.  

          With COVID-19, we confront yet another devastating zoonotic disease, and an urgent lesson we should have learned before—biodiversity must remain undisturbed and we must restore the ecological balance. 

          Brazil at one point was a leader among tropical countries in conservation and in recognizing Indigenous rights. Using their traditional knowledge, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities protect 80 percent of the earth’s remaining terrestrial biodiversity  on their ancestral lands.

          A growing body of evidence suggests that these communities outperform all others in conserving forests and biodiversity; they must have their land rights recognized and enforced if they are to continue safeguarding these precious ecosystems.   

           The Amazon is still recognized as the most biodiverse location on Earth—but this resource is now threatened, and so much sustainable potential is still untapped.   

          World leaders should therefore set a course that will bring nature back from the abyss: When new targets for global nature conservation are negotiated next year within the framework of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the goal of placing 30 percent of the land area and oceans under effective protection by 2030 should be adopted. 

          With their lands increasingly under threat, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities must be essential partners in reaching this goal. 

          Presently, almost everyone around the globe is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as from the mostly unnoticed crisis in biodiversity. For our society—and our economy, and our ecology—to recover, we must protect the Amazon and respect its Indigenous Peoples and all the forest peoples in the region.  

          The Author

          Carlos Nobre is a senior climate scientist at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and a foreign member of the US National Academy of Sciences.  


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