The Brazilian indigenous Aruká Juma was between 86 and 90 years old when this Wednesday he died of complications from the coronavirus in the ICU of a hospital in Porto Velho, a city embedded in the Amazon, 120 kilometers by road and two hours by boat from his village. His death, like the 1,150 registered on that day throughout Brazil, was a tragedy for his relatives, but Aruká was also the last male of the Juma people, living memory of ancestral knowledge and survivor of a massacre to exterminate his family. The three daughters he leaves behind are the last of a town that in the 18th century had between 12,000 and 15,000 members.
Acute respiratory failure combined with an infection made the old man not overcome the disease, according to the digital newspaper Real Amazon. As a young man, he and six other Jumas survived a massacre commissioned by merchants interested in the rubber and chestnuts of his land, according to detailed information from the Socio-Environmental Institute on each of the hundreds of ethnic groups from Brazil. Hunted as if they were monkeys, some 60 indigenous people died. It was the last attempt at mass extermination suffered by this tribe, described by chroniclers as cannibalistic, perverse and ferocious, and contacted in the mid-20th century.
The Aruká case illustrates how the pandemic affects indigenous people living in villages in Brazil, the second country where the coronavirus has caused the most damage. Three figures summarize the national drama: 242,000 deaths, almost ten million infections and unemployment of 14%. Among indigenous people who live in villages – a small, especially vulnerable minority that inhabit a vast territory – COVID has killed 567 people. The life of this juma also offers a look at the history of these communities decimated since the Portuguese colonization and which are essential for the conservation of the Amazon, the largest tropical forest in the world. Keys, therefore, to curb climate change.
The anthropologist Edmundo Peggion met the last Juma in the 1990s. “Aruká was the last Juma man who had memory of the ways of hunting, the artisanal ways of his people. There is a consensus in the region, among the Kagwahiva indigenous people, of its importance for the collective memory ”, explains the professor from the Paulista State University (Unesp) in a telephone interview. Kagwahiva is the linguistic group to which the Juma belong. “He was recognized as a loved, a title of respect ”, which means grandfather in Tupí Guaraní.
The coronavirus and Jair Bolsonaro – an anti-vaccine president, who despises the seriousness of the pandemic and indigenous rights – have added to the classic threats from natives, such as gold miners or illegal loggers. The main Brazilian aboriginal associations directly blame the Government for his death: “Once again, the Brazilian Government behaved with a degree of criminal omission and in an incompetent manner. The government assassinated him ”, they say in a statement.
The epidemic spread rapidly through the rivers of the Amazon. And land invaders are a source of contagion. Although vaccination is reaching remote indigenous villages, there is distrust of health workers. And the lack of dose threatens immunization throughout Brazil. Rio de Janeiro had to stop the injections on Monday.
Aruká was transferred to a hospital in January and intubated. He is also one of the Brazilians who was treated with what the Ministry of Health calls early treatment. Drugs such as chloroquine, whose effectiveness against covid-19 has not been scientifically proven, converted by Bolsonaro into government policy. To the point of embarking the Armed Forces in the manufacture of millions of tablets.
The death of the indigenous elder “is a devastating loss. The story of his life was and continues to be a symbol of the tremendous struggle waged by the Juma people, “says Edson Carvalho, from the NGO Kanindé, from Porto Velho, the city where Aruká died.
He will be buried in his village, located in the Juma Indigenous Land, south of the State of Amazonas, where he was when he felt the first symptoms in January. A place very far from any city. The creation of this 38,000 hectare indigenous reserve was an arduous battle culminated after years of paperwork. The authorities were not convinced that this territory with a handful of inhabitants deserved the legal protection that prevents the exploitation of its resources.
Before, at the end of the nineties, the last Juma were removed by the authorities from their lands. Aruká, his three daughters, a brother-in-law and his wife were transferred against their will to the domains of the uru-eu-wau-wau, explains the anthropologist, who at that time had close contact with both groups. There the daughters married men from this other town with which the Juma share a language. Leaving their habitat “had a huge impact on the lives of all the Juma,” says Peggion, adding that the older couple passed away shortly after the move. “In those years outside his territory, Aruká was very depressed, he had a great longing for his territory,” according to the researcher.
After fighting another duel with the authorities, this indigenous grandfather managed to return to the lands where he grew up and that his ancestors inhabited for many centuries. His daughters (jumas), their husbands (of the Uru-eu-wau-wau ethnic group) and the children of the three couples accompanied him. The NGO Kanindé maintains that, as in this case the ethnic group is transmitted by the father, they are the last of the lineage. The first-born, Borehá, is the new chief of the decimated group.
True to his campaign promise, Bolsonaro has not given legal protection to one more centimeter of indigenous land in the two years he has been in office. The files in process are paralyzed while the inspectors in Amazonia, the bodies that ensure the protection of the environment and the indigenous people who have protected it for countless generations, decrease.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.