Coronavirus Brazil: Chief of Amazon tribe and one of best known rainforest defenders dies

Paulinho Paiakan gained international prominence for his opposition to the Belo Monte dam project

Matt Mathers
Thursday 18 June 2020 13:05 BST
Coronavirus in numbers

An indigenous tribe leader who gained international attention for his opposition to deforestation in the Amazon has died with Covid-19.

Paulinho Paiakan, chief of the Kayapo people, died at a hospital in Redençao in the southern Pará state, aged around 65.

Paiakan came to prominence during the 1980s for his campaign against Brazil’s Belo Monte hydroelectric project, one of the largest dams in the world.

He had previously been hired by the Brazilian government in the 1970s to facilitate the construction of the Trans-Amazonian highway system through Kayapo lands, but quit over the scale of the plans and instead began to mobilise against the project.

The Brazilian Indigenous Peoples' Association (Apib) described Paiakan as a "father, leader and warrior" for indigenous peoples and the environment, according to the BBC.

In 1992, Paiakan was accused of raping an 18-year-old woman. He was acquitted two years later but convicted in 1998 following a retrial and sentenced to six years in prison.

His wife was found guilty of assisting him in the attack. Paiakan’s allies claim the case was fabricated in an attempt to tarnish his reputation and silence him.

Brazil is now considered the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic. As of Thursday morning, officials reported over 960,000 cases of the disease and recorded more than 46,000 deaths – the largest number of fatalities outside the US.

But experts warn those figures are likely to be far higher due to a lack of adequate testing, while locals say that many hospitals are on the brink of collapse. More than 34,000 cases were reported on Tuesday alone.

The virus has been spreading steadily across Amazon territories in recent weeks, posing an increasing threat to indigenous peoples.

According to figures by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil – the South American country’s primary indigenous federation – cases in indigenous communities have risen from 46 on 1 May to 262 by 9 June.

Activists have warned that Brazil’s indigenous communities are at risk of being “wiped out” due to their susceptibility to highly contagious diseases.

One Amazon tribe has turned to traditional remedies in tackling the novel virus amid rising concerns that the government is failing to provide adequate support, via FUNAI, the body which oversees policies related to indigenous communities.

Antonio Carlos Bigonha, who heads the public prosecution office responsible for indigenous affairs, earlier this month said FUNAI’s response had been “delinquent, lax, insufficient” and reflected government support for the policy of assimilation of native people.

“The environment of Covid-19 is so grave, because integration alone is bad, but in the context of a pandemic is genocide,” Mr Bigonha told Associated Press.

FUNAI rejected the allegations and claimed it has distributed 45,000 food kits and more than 200,000 personal protection items nationwide, with another 40,000 food kits to come.

Despite the seriousness of the outbreak in Brazil, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has continued to downplay the dangers associated with disease and has urged people to get back to work.

He has previously described the infection as a “little flu” and has been pictured mixing with crowds and embracing children during protests.

Earlier this month, thousands of protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic.

Large crowds gathered on Sunday in cities across the country and in capital Brasilia to denounce the president and his nonchalant approach to the disease.

Many also used the protests to show solidarity with George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes.

Additional reporting by agencies

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