Protecting Brazil’s indigenous communities during the COVID-19 pandemic

22 January 2021 BrazilCOVID-19GCRFHealth

Kuikuro tribe

The COVID-19 pandemic is a major threat to the survival of Brazil’s indigenous communities. In September 2020, more than 27,000 indigenous people had been infected, of which 806 people had died (The Lancet, 2020). Indigenous communities need additional support to isolate and protect themselves, but outside help must be managed carefully.

Kuikuro tribe members

Through the People’s Palace Projects, UK researchers have collaborated with the Kuikuro Indigenous Association of the Upper Xingu (AIKAX) to provide food and vital medical support to the Kuikuro people in a safe, sustainable and culturally sensitive way. Their early, decisive action to support the community’s lockdown and avoid exposure to external contamination prevented the virus entering the Kuikuro villages for four months and made it possible for the community to have an appropriate health structure to treat confirmed cases within their own villages.

Kuikuro built an isolation house in their Ipatse Village

When Brazil’s first COVID-19 death was confirmed in March 2020, the Kuikuro built an isolation house in their Ipatse Village of 400 inhabitants so that those who travelled for work or to buy supplies could quarantine on their return.

Fundraising efforts by the project team significantly extended this provision, providing two additional health workers, seven hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and essential items to support the community. This included: over a tonne of food, 8,300 pieces of personal protective equipment (including gloves, masks, and thermometers), 5,000 medicine units, fishing equipment and fuel. A car allowed the health professionals to provide emergency aid to the six villages and other health posts in the Upper Xingu.

first shipment of essential items to the Ipatse Village

Of the 921 indigenous people that have died due to COVID-19 in Brazil by the 15 January (APIB, 2021), none is from the Kuikuro. The initiative has recently been expanded to five other villages in the Xingu which have subsequently not registered any COVID-19 deaths.

When we first saw that this disease was getting close to the Xingu, we cut all physical contact with the closest towns and the other villages. This has only been possible with the support of People’s Palace Projects, a cultural partner for the past six years. We used to do art exchanges, with foreign artists coming to our village and our artists going to London. Now, this partnership has become entirely dedicated to help us navigate the pandemic.

Takumã Kuikuro, indigenous filmmaker

members of the Kuikuro community from the Upper Xingu performing a traditional ritual

To fund the initiative, People's Palace Projects collaborated with the theatre company, Complicité and Takumã Kuikuro to produce short videos to raise awareness about the pandemic in the Xingu. The videos were made available to the public alongside the play The Encounter – directed and performed by Simon McBurney from research originally undertaken with Professor Paul Heritage and Takumã – and raised over £32,000. People's Palace Projects then worked with a global network of artists, academics, public health and community development experts to raise further $20,000 in the US, and R$22,000 in Brazil.

The project is part of a wider series of equitable research partnerships between People's Palace Projects and the Kuikuro that have demonstrated how cultural practices protect not only indigenous lives but the forests, rivers and land of the South Amazon Basin.

The Art of Cultural Exchange: Translation and Transformation between the UK and Brazil 2014-16 (a)
The Currency of Cultural Exchange: re-thinking models of indigenous development (b)
Xingu Encounter (c)

Project leads: Paul Heritage, People’s Palace Projects (PPP), Queen Mary University of London and Takumã Kuikuro, Kuikuro Indigenous Association of the Upper Xingu (AIKAX)

Funder: Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), both part of UKRI

Partner organisations: Amazon Hopes Collective and Complicité Theatre

Photography:

  • Main image: Filmmaker and researcher Takumã Kuikuro © Flavio Andre
  • Image 2: Chiefs Afukaka and Jakalo Kuikuro from the Ipatse Village, Xingu Indigenous Territory © Takumã Kuikuro
  • Image 3: The Kuikuro built an isolation house in their Ipatse Village so those who travelled for work or to buy supplies could quarantine on their return © Takumã Kuikuro
  • Image 4: Photo of the first shipment of essential items to the Ipatse Village in the Upper Xingu (May 2020) © Yanamã Kuikuro
  • Image 5: Members of the Kuikuro community from the Upper Xingu performing a traditional ritual in the Ipatse Village © Takumã Kuikuro

Learn more about UK-Brazil collaborations funded through AHRC in their Research collaborations Brazil publication.

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