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Virus poses cultural threat to Brazil's Amazon people

Indigenous Yanomami ethnic group members, seen waiting for COVID-19 tests at the 4th Special Frontier Platoon in Alto Alegre, Roraima state, Brazil, worry that going into cities for medical treatment will mean cutting them off from their culture
Indigenous Yanomami ethnic group members, seen waiting for COVID-19 tests at the 4th Special Frontier Platoon in Alto Alegre, Roraima state, Brazil, worry that going into cities for medical treatment will mean cutting them off from their culture NELSON ALMEIDA AFP/File
4 min
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Amajari (Brasil) (AFP)

In the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, the advance of COVID-19 presents indigenous people with a cruel cultural dilemma -- remain in their villages with little medical help, or seek safety in the city and risk being deprived of their ancestral funeral rites.

Lucita Sanoma lost her two-month-old baby to suspected coronavirus on May 25. The boy was buried, without her knowledge, 300 kilometers (185 miles) from her village.

The infant died in hospital in Boa Vista, capital of the northwestern state of Roraima.

The burial followed government health guidelines that run counter to Yanomami culture, which dictates that the deceased must be cremated.

The authorities "have to understand and respect the cultural issue," indigenous leader Mauricio Yekuana told AFP, outraged at the suffering of the young mother and three other women with similar experiences.

As part of the Yanomami's funerary rites, the remains are displayed in the forest before they are cremated. The ashes are collected in an urn to be buried in a new ceremony much later.

"I want to bring my son's body back to the village, we must mourn him together," Lucita Sanoma told AFP through an interpreter.

Her long black hair falling over her shoulders, the young woman wiped away tears as she described her distress in her own language.

"I went straight to the hospital with my son...The last word I received is that he died. I never saw him again," she said in a soft, rhythmic voice.

Not being able to mourn in her community, according to her ancestral rites, "is a lack of respect, which has a strong psychological effect on the mother," said Junios Yanomami, president of the Yanomami Indigenous Health Council.

After her ordeal, Lucita Sanoma returned to her village in the region of Auaris, in Brazil's northwest.

But her son's body remains in an unmarked grave in a Boa Vista cemetery, until the authorities decide if she can bring him home to grieve with her relatives.

- Disregard for indigenous culture -

Mauricio Yekuana said such situations are the result of health policies that disregard the indigenous perspective.

"The government just wants to impose its view of things on the indigenous people and force them to listen to what it wants to do," he told AFP. "It uses them for propaganda."

An online appeal for donations has been started by the Uniao Amazonia Viva collective to buy medical equipment, including respirators, to avoid sick people having to travel to the city.

In the meantime, the villagers are trying as best they can to respect social distancing measures and wear protective masks.

But their task has been made even more difficult by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. On Wednesday, he watered down a law that would force the government to provide indigenous people with access to health care and clean drinking water.

Of the nearly 8,000 cases of COVID-19 the government has registered in indigenous communities, 186 are from the Yanomami, four of whom died. Most were infected in the city.

Although there are no confirmed cases in Auaris, home to some 4,000 Yanomami and Yekuana people, the concern is palpable.

- 'We are afraid' -

Many locals wear masks and gloves, and the word "coronavirus" has entered the vocabulary.

"We are afraid," said Paulo, a community leader who wears a mask, a T-shirt and shorts and uses an arrow as a cane. He says that many went into the jungle to escape the virus.

Last week, the army distributed medicines and protective equipment to the indigenous people in the Auaris region.

"Nobody dares threaten our Amazon," reads a sign at the entrance to the military base where rapid COVID-19 tests are being carried out.

Nearby, youngsters play football in a field, oblivious to a sudden, soaking downpour.

The government minister for indigenous health, Robson da Silva, says the main reason indigenous people contracted the virus was due to their constant movement.

But the Yanomami, who measure distances in terms of the time it takes to walk somewhere, say the danger to them has come from outside, especially from illegal gold miners who make regular incursions into their 96,000 square kilometer (37,000 square mile) territory.

"Without that, we'd be safe," says Mauricio Yekuana, whose white mask contrasts sharply with the black genipap-based paint that lines his face.

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