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Wed, 25 Mar 2020 15:40 - Updated Wed, 25 Mar 2020 15:37

After smallpox and malaria, Brazil's tribes fear coronavirus is next lethal import

BRASILIA (Reuters) - When Europeans first arrived in the Amazon rainforest, their smallpox decimated local tribes. Then rubber tappers, gold miners and settlers brought malaria, measles and influenza.

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Now many of Brazil’s 850,000 indigenous people, fearing the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, are urging officials to expel from their lands outsiders who could introduce the disease.

“We are demanding immediate removal of all intruders, miners, loggers, poachers, drug traffickers, land grabbers, missionaries and tourists who can be vectors of transmission,” said Nara Baré, head of the umbrella organization COIAB that represents the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest.

In the upper reaches of the Rio Negro, on the border with Colombia and Venezuela, indigenous communities have closed airstrips and cut off access to their reservation lands for all non-native people arriving by boat from the Brazilian city of Manaus, deep in the Amazon.

Health experts and indigenous groups are calling especially for the expulsion of some 20,000 wildcat gold miners from the Yanomami reservation, the country’s largest located on the border with Venezuela, where tribes have been hit by malaria brought by the intruders.

The new viral threat comes at a time when far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has vowed to develop the Amazon and review the protected reservation lands where more than 300 tribes live.

A former army captain, Bolsonaro has put the government’s indigenous affairs agency Funai in the hands of farm sector interests and advocates for Christian missionaries eager to evangelize tribes.

Responding to appeals from tribal leaders, human rights groups and federal prosecutors, Funai on Monday suspended all contacts with the most isolated tribes in Brazil.

So far, the indigenous health service Sesai has reported only four suspected cases of coronavirus in indigenous communities. Only one of them is in the Amazon.

Still, many tribes remain on edge, recalling epidemics that ravaged native populations in recent memory. Measles killed thousands of indigenous Brazilians in the last century. Influenza took a heavy toll when the military dictatorship decided to carve open the rainforest with roads in the 1970s.

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