Brazil's leaders must take immediate action to save the country's indigenous peoples from a Covid-19 “genocide”, a global coalition of artists, celebrities, scientists and intellectuals has said.
In an open letter to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, figures such as Madonna, Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt, David Hockney and Paul McCartney warned that the pandemic meant that indigenous communities in the Amazon faced "an extreme threat to their survival."
“Five centuries ago, these ethnic groups were decimated by diseases brought by European colonizers… Now, with this new scourge that spreads rapidly throughout Brazil… [they] may disappear completely since they have no means to combat Covid-19 ”They wrote.
The organizer of the petition, Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, said intruders, including gold miners and illegal loggers, must be immediately evicted from indigenous lands to prevent them from importing a disease that has killed more than 283,000 people worldwide, including 11,123 in Brazil.
"We are on the eve of a genocide," Salgado, who has spent nearly four decades documenting the Amazon and its inhabitants, told The Guardian.
Even before Covid-19, the indigenous peoples of Brazil were locked in what activists call a historic struggle for survival.
Critics accuse Bolsonaro, a far-right populist in power since January 2019, of encouraging the invasion of indigenous reservations and dismantling the government agencies that supposedly protect them.
“Indigenous communities have never been so attacked… The government has absolutely no respect for indigenous territories,” Salgado said, pointing to crippling budget cuts and the recent firing of several top environmental officials who had targeted illegal loggers and prospectors.
But the letter said the pandemic had further worsened Bolsonaro's bleak prospects by crippling remaining protection efforts.
“As a result, there is nothing to protect indigenous peoples from the risk of genocide caused by an infection introduced by strangers illegally entering their lands,” argued the signatories, who also include supermodels Gisele Bündchen and Naomi Campbell, the author. Mario Vargas Llosa, artist Ai Weiwei, architect Norman Foster and actress Meryl Streep.
Salgado, who documented the 1994 Rwandan genocide, warned that the 300,000 indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon faced annihilation.
“In Rwanda we saw a violent genocide, an attack, where people were physically killed. What will happen in Brazil will also mean the death of the indigenous people, ”said the 76-year-old man who spent the last seven years photographing the region for his final big project.
“When you endorse or promote an act that you know will eliminate a population or part of a population, this is the definition of genocide… [It will be] genocide because we know this is going to happen, we are facilitating… entry of coronavirus… [and therefore ] permission is being given for the death of these indigenous peoples “.
"It would mean the extinction of the indigenous peoples of Brazil," added Salgado.
Fears that Covid-19 could devastate indigenous communities grew last month when the death of a Yanomami teenager revived horrifying memories of epidemics caused by road builders and gold prospectors in the 1970s and 1980s.
“In some of the villages that I knew, measles killed 50% of the population. If Covid does the same, it would be a massacre, ”said Carlo Zaquini, an Italian missionary who has spent decades working with the Yanomami.
The Brazilian city so far most affected by the coronavirus is Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, the state where part of the Yanomami reserve is located.
Salgado, who calls for the creation of an army-led task force to evict intruders from protected areas, admitted that Bolsonaro would not act of his own free will. But he believed international pressure could force the government to do so, as happened last year when global outrage resulted in the military being deployed to extinguish fires in the Amazon.
“Only in the Brazilian Amazon we have 103 indigenous groups that have never been contacted; they represent the prehistory of humanity, ”said Salgado. "We cannot allow all this to go away."