Social Issues

Brazilian Amazon tribe endures hardship in quest for Covid-19 vaccine

By Tatiana Nevo

Atalaia do Norte, Brazil, Apr 30 (EFE).- Pixi Isma, Kunnin and 35 other members of the Matis indigenous community embarked on a 12-day river journey from their villages in a remote part of the Brazilian Amazon to Atalaia do Norte, the nearest town, to vaccinate themselves against Covid-19.

Riding in covered boats to shield themselves from the driving rain, they were forced to make the long journey on the Javari River, an Amazon tributary, since an immunization drive will not reach their remote hamlets located near Brazil’s borders with Colombia and Peru.

“When the vaccines first appeared, we were scared. Then we saw that other indigenous people from other regions got the vaccine and we summoned the courage,” Pixi Isma told Efe.

But the more than three-dozen Matis, as well as members of other ethnic groups, are now stranded in Atalaia do Norte, a border town in the far-western state of Amazonas, because they don’t have the gasoline or money they need to return to their villages.

“The Funai (National Indian Foundation, a government agency whose budget was recently slashed by more than 60 percent) is unable to help us,” Kunnin, his community’s spokesperson, told Efe about their precarious situation.

Some of them sell handicrafts, but their earnings are insufficient to buy all of their necessities.

Luciano Rodriguez Kanamaris, a local fisherman moved by the plight of these indigenous people, receives them at his raft and shares some of his daily catch.

“I don’t have much to give them, but I help them as much as I can. They’re here, they bathe here, we talk and laugh a little,” he said.

The importance of tradition is plainly evident among the Matis.

Marke, Kunnin’s son, is 16 and has just received his first “paut,” an ornament worn on the earlobe that represents his position in the family.

In a few years, his nose will be pierced with two black palm fibers that symbolize the first facial hairs, in a rite of passage ceremony that effectively marks the end of childhood.

But previously uncontacted Amazon tribes also have experienced major changes.

“Historically, the indigenous peoples of the Javari didn’t live on the banks of the big rivers,” anthropologist Thiago Arruda Ribeiro of the Federal University of Santa Catarina told Efe, adding that as they had more contact with the outside world they moved closer to the river to barter and sell goods.

Over time, the Matis started to use motor boats, although it is still rare to see them in urban areas.

“They come occasionally to buy tools for hunting and fishing. They come, shop and return. They don’t stay in the town,” Ribeiro said.

He added, however, that the fact the Matis have gone to Atalaia do Norte to get vaccinated is very important “since in many places the indigenous people were afraid of the vaccine.”

Contact was first made with the Matis in late 1976 during the construction of a road in the Brazilian Amazon, a project that was not completed but had a devastating impact on that remote population, around 3 percent of whom died of malaria, measles or influenza.

But one threat they have avoided thus far is the novel coronavirus, with no cases yet reported in their villages.


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