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COVID-19 Threatens Indigenous People Of The Amazon

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

COVID-19 is devastating Brazil. It's already killed more than 22,000 Brazilians. And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, there's a particular concern about its impact in the Amazon rainforest.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: There's a huge fish that swims the rivers of the rainforest. It's called the pirarucu. This fish is more than two meters long, which means it's handy for anyone explaining social distancing to people in the Amazon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "If you're waiting in a line, stay one pirarucu apart," advises the announcer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: That public service broadcast is on community radio in a place called Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira. It's a small river town surrounded by forest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: That's the same message in one of Sao Gabriel's 16 local languages. Nine out of 10 people in the area are Indigenous.

FABIO SAMPAIO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "The first cases were discovered in late April," says Fabio Sampaio, the municipal health secretary. First, there were two; the next day, six.

SAMPAIO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "This threat really scared municipal officials," said Sampaio. "Local people were scared, too."

ANDRE BANIWA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "There was a lot of panic," says Anthony (ph) Baniwa, a leader from the Baniwa tribe.

BANIWA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "This virus doesn't fool around," he says. COVID-19 has now killed at least 17 people in Sao Gabriel. Nearly 600 are infected, including villagers in indigenous forest reserves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIP HORNS BLARING)

REEVES: Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira is in Brazil's far northwest by a huge river, the Rio Negro. That's the same river the last time NPR traveled on it. Supplies are shipped in from the nearest big city. That city is Manaus, 550 miles away. When COVID-19 hit Manaus, it caused havoc. Victims were buried in mass graves. The health system collapsed. People in Sao Gabriel suspect that's where the virus came from. Riverboats with passengers are now banned from landing.

MARIVELTON BARROSO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Yet people have still been arriving in private boats from Manaus and sneaking in illegally," says Marivelton Barroso, an Indigenous community leader. Barroso says in the Amazon, the river is seen as sacred, a source of life. Now people are looking at it differently.

BARROSO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Today it's a threat," he says. Sao Gabriel's now in lockdown. It only has one hospital. Seriously ill patients are flown out to Manaus.

BANIWA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "No one wants that," says Anthony Baniwa. "People think they'll never come back."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Brazil's military recently flew in medical support to Sao Gabriel and posted footage of this online. Yet many fear Indigenous communities will be overlooked. Brazil's Indigenous leaders see the president, Jair Bolsonaro, as a threat. He's weakened protection of their lands and cheered on deforesters. Bolsonaro's also downplaying the virus.

JULIANA RADLER: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "His behavior is lamentable," says Juliana Radler from the Socio-Environmental Institute, an advocacy group. Radler's on Sao Gabriel's COVID-19 crisis committee. She fears the virus could devastate the area's Indigenous communities.

RADLER: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "It's deeply worrying," she says. The people of the forest are seeking solutions of their own.

BANIWA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "We're experimenting with medicinal plants," says Indigenous leader Andre Baniwa. "We've already lost relatives." He hopes nature will offer a cure before his people lose many more.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.