PARA STATE, Brazil (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the middle of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, far from the laboratories of the world’s major pharmaceutical companies, the indigenous people of Kayapó in the state of Para use a drink made from vines to help them ward off the worst effects of COVID-19.
As attacks by illegal loggers and miners into the Amazon increase during the pandemic, potentially exposing forest-dwelling tribes to the virus, the Kayapó tribe say their natural treatment helps keep them safe.
The bark of the vine – a name with which the community remains secret – is boiled and strained into a tea that is drunk three times a day, for five days, explained Po Yre, a 23-year-old member of the Kayapó community. from the village of Pykany.
“The medicine is very strong. When you drink it, you become weak, sometimes with red eyes and headaches. But, the next day, it worked. You wake up fine, ”said Po Yre, who took the medicine after testing positive for COVID-19 in July.
While there is no scientific evidence that tea can fight the virus, Kayapó leaders say all members of the public should drink it as a form of prevention against COVID, which has killed nearly 200,000 Brazilians, according to official figures.
Villagers say it is the best way to prevent the pandemic from wiping out indigenous communities, which they say have limited support from the federal government.
Health experts warn that the coronavirus pandemic is endangering indigenous peoples with limited or no access to health care in the Amazon and whose communal life makes social distancing difficult.
The Amazon community was particularly hard hit in the early stages of last year’s Brazilian coronavirus pandemic.
“The (related) agencies did not act in a timely manner to protect us, making us question whether they really exist for us indigenous peoples,” said O-é Kaiapó Paiakan, daughter of iconic Kayapó leader Paulinho Paiakan, one of the pioneers of the indigenous movement. Brazil, which died of COVID-19 in June.
The government’s customary affairs agency, Funai, directs all inquiries to the Ministry of Health.
The ministry said in an emailed statement that there are more than 400 health workers monitoring and caring for the Para’s Kayapo community and the government has delivered essential supplies – such as masks and hand sanitizer – to villages.
“District professionals maintain a continuous dialogue (and) conduct home visits … with village leaders, health counselors and the general public, addressing COVID-19 preventive and protection care,” the statement said.
When the Kayapó people get sick, they usually start with traditional medicine and only switch to conventional medicine when necessary, said Dr. Douglas Rodrigues, an indigenous health specialist at the Federal University of Sao Paulo.
The Kayapó found that grape tea relieves symptoms of COVID-19, “whether because the tea has active ingredients or has a strengthening and moisturizing component,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
‘The Perfect Storm’
There are about 12,000 Kayapó in the states of Pará and Mato Grosso, according to the Instituto Socioambiental, an organization that proposes solutions to environmental and social problems in Brazil.
Among that population, there have been fewer than 20 deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to SESAI, the government’s original health service.
While proponents of indigenous peoples say the figure is likely an underestimation, it is still significantly lower than the 2.5% death rate among Brazil’s non-indigenous population, according to statistics from the Council of National Health Secretaries.
Proponents of customary rights say rampant encroachment in the Amazon jungle by loggers, miners and farmers greatly increases the risk of villagers contracting the coronavirus from outsiders.
Rodrigo Balbueno, a biologist and consultant at the Kabu Institute, who represents the Kayapó community of Bau and Menkragnoti indigenous lands in Para state, said there had been an explosion in the number of attacks during the pandemic.
Comparing satellite images of the area from August 2020 to October 2020, Balbueno said it is possible to see new roads being built and more areas being cleared of trees – all indications of an increase in illegal logging and gold mining.
Environmentalists say encroachers have been encouraged by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s plans to open up the Amazon to commercial mining and agriculture, which he says will lift indigenous people out of poverty.
At the same time, when Funai banned outsiders from entering customary land at the start of the pandemic, the order also stopped inspections meant to stop illegal activity in the rainforest, explained Balbueno.
“The loosening of inspections and the feeling of freedom (provided by Bolsonaro) is the perfect storm for everything we see now,” he said.
Scientists say that fighting the increasing rate of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest – a major store of carbon that warms a planet that spans nine South American countries – is critical in the fight against climate change.
LOSS OF HISTORY AND TRADITION
Even with villagers avoiding the city and drinking regular doses of wine tea, Pykatoti Village Chief Abiri Kayapó is still worried that the virus will spread.
“There are no serious cases in this village. Everyone has been treated with medicine from the forest. But I’m worried about the invasion, ”he said, walking along the trail through the forest to show medicinal plants.
Kayapó leaders have prohibited anyone in the community from disclosing the name of the plant species used in tea processing to prevent their forests from being stripped of their resources, Abiri said.
That secrecy, villagers say, is essential to ensure the pandemic does not again ravage people who hold onto the history and traditions of the community.
“COVID-19 has killed women, parents and leaders who brought with it a whole history of struggle and culture,” said O-é Kaiapó Paiakan, who is still shaken by the loss of his father.
“The elders are very important for the perpetuation of our culture. They maintain our way of life, pass down their stories for the younger generations to pass down. “
Reporting by Lucas Landau; Edited by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering. Please acknowledge the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Thomson Reuters charity, covering the lives of people around the world who struggle to live free or fair. Visit news.trust.org/climate