Translation by David Milan.
With no coherent strategy to slow the advance of Covid-19 in the United States, the Trump administration deployed humanitarian aid to Brazil.
On May 1, the U.S. Embassy in Brazil announced that the Trump administration would allocate a total of $12.5 million to mitigate the socioeconomic and health impacts of the pandemic, with special attention on the Amazon.
"Combating Covid-19 in Brazil is our top priority right now. Working across the U.S. government and engaging closely with American companies in Brazil, we are mobilizing millions of dollars to help Brazilians in need," said U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman on June 2.
Meanwhile, infections and deaths continue to rise in Brazil. By August 11, the South American country had over 3 million coronavirus cases and 101,752 confirmed deaths.
“It seems like this help didn't arrive in time for Indigenous communities, especially those furthest from urban centers," where deaths have increased drastically, says Adriana María Huber Azevedo, a missionary with the Conselho Indigenista Missionário (the Indigenist Missionary Council, CIMI).
Many Brazilians are skeptical of the intentions of U.S. aid during the pandemic. The U.S. military continues to exert influence in Brazil and has a long history of supporting Indigenous displacement in Latin America. Meanwhile, some aid contributions reflect private interests responsible for environmental and cultural destruction in the Amazon, and others have promoted unproven medical treatments.
Coronavirus Enters the Amazon
The Kokama community, on the banks of the Solimões River in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, consist of around 800 people. They are one of the groups that has been most affected by Covid-19. By the second week of June, a total of 57 Indigenous Kokama people had died. The pandemic is spreading across the region at an alarming speed. Cases and deaths are mounting, and at least 75 different tribal groups have been affected.
The first coronavirus case and death in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, was confirmed when a businessman died in March. The virus quickly spread through more than 25 Indigenous communities.
"The third week of March, the first case among Indigenous peoples was identified. They say that a young Kokama woman, from the town of São José in the municipality of Santo Antônio do Içá, 879 kilometers [546 miles] from Manaus, caught the virus from contact with a doctor," said CIMI’s Executive Secretary Antônio Eduardo Cerqueira de Oliveira.
In a few weeks, cases rapidly expanded towards the Alto Solimões region, made up of 70 municipalities with a population of around 70,000 Indigenous people from several tribes.
Vale do Javari, located in western Amazonas, has the second highest Indigenous presence of any region in Brazil. At least 7,000 individuals from seven different peoples live there, including them 15 uncontacted tribes. Public servants working for the Special Districts of Indigenous Health (DSEI) who were in the region were confirmed to be infected with Covid-19.
According to records from the Missionary Council, by June 9, the Coordenação das Organizações Indígenas da Amazônia Brasileira (Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon, COIAB) had counted 218 deaths and 2,642 cases among 75 tribes in the area in which DSEI functionaries were operating. CIMI's June 23 tally had documented a total of 314 deaths in the Amazon region. At that point, the Secretaria Especial de Saúde Indígena (the Special Ministry of Indigenous Health, SESAI) had reported only 107 deaths; the rest were documented by Indigenous organizations.
The under-reporting by official sources has continued. By August 6, SESAI’s confirmed case count among Indigenous people had climbed to 17,198, but their claim of only 305 deaths is still less than CIMI’s figures from June. The Articulación de los Pueblos Indígenas de Brasil (Articulation of Indigenous People of Brazil, APIB), an independent body, reports 22,656 confirmed cases and 639 deaths.
U.S. Aid to Brazil
United States institutions in Brazil have disbursed funds for several purposes since May. According to an Embassy announcement, funds have contributed to “assistance for emergency health and water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions in Brazil (US$ 6 million),” “support to vulnerable communities, with a focus on the Amazon region (US$ 2 million),” and “refugees in Brazil (US$ 500,000).”
As part of the humanitarian aid package, USAID promised to deliver some 1,000 ventilators. According to a U.S. Embassy statement, since May, "The United States Government has delivered two million doses of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) to the people of Brazil ... HCQ will be used as a prophylactic to help defend Brazil’s nurses, doctors, and healthcare professionals against the virus. It will also be used as a therapeutic to treat Brazilians who become infected.”
However, Sebastião Pinheiro, a Brazilian agronomist, argues that the donation of this drug is merely publicity. "It's a business deal by Trump, to benefit the Bayer-Sanofi companies that produce this medication. There is no scientific foundation backing its use against Covid-19... ...It's only Bolsonaro's administration that promotes it," said Pinheiro.
Bolsonaro, with no tangible scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of hydroxycloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19, began promoting it as the U.S. Embassy donated the drugs. When Bolsonaro tested positive for the coronavirus in July, he continued to promote hydroxychloroquine as a treatment.
Brazilian Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta was fired in April after refusing to promote the drug. One month later, his successor Nelson Teich resigned after disagreeing with Bolsonaro’s re-opening plan.
Military Presence in the Amazon
While the pandemic advances in Brazil, it is not only the U.S. Embassy and USAID that have intervened, but also the U.S. military's Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which covers South America, Central America, and the Caribbean.
On May 27, SOUTHCOM announced the donation of $45,000 worth of PPE for medical personnel and food for the region. This comes on top of the $2 million that USAID had donated to the Amazon region "to prevent transmission, support treatment and help mitigate health impacts of the virus," according to the U.S. Embassy.
While this aid was being delivered to the Municipal Health Ministry and Civil Defense of Manaus, as well as Delphina Aziz Hospital, Ambassador Chapman said, "These donations demonstrate our commitment to the people of the Amazon region and to Brazil."
SOUTHCOM has had a presence in the region for years. In 2017, it participated in the AmazonLog2017 project, carried out along the border of Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. The event served as a military exercise and a showcase of the weapons industry, carried out in three phases between August 28 and November 13, 2017. More than 2,000 troops participated, from the Brazilian, Colombian, and Peruvian armies as well as those of invited countries, among them SOUTHCOM.
Pinheiro is skeptical of the declared goals of the U.S. presence in the Amazon. "If coronavirus in the U.S. has mostly impacted poor, Latino, and African American people because there's no public health system, are they really interested in poor and Indigenous people in the Amazon?" he said.
Pinheiro argues that the U.S. presence has other objectives. "Bolsonaro promised the United States and American companies that he would push Indigenous peoples out of their territories to open up public lands for the expansion of agriculture, ranching, mining, and energy production, among other things. The 2019 wildfires helped with this, in the same way coronavirus is working now," he said.
According to Pinheiro, in September 2019, while the wildfires all over the Brazilian Amazon were intensifying, the U.S. and Brazil governments reaffirmed their promotion of "private sector development in the Amazon."
This agreement was announced in Washington DC by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and his Brazilian counterpart Ernesto Araújo. In a press conference on September 13, 2019, they outlined a bilateral cooperation strategy to be implemented in the Amazon.
"The Brazilians and the American teams will follow through on our commitment that our presidents made in March . We’re getting off the ground a $100 million 11-year Impact Investment Fund for Amazon biodiversity conservation," said Pompeo.
Araújo agreed: "We want to be together in the effort to create development for the Amazon region, which we are convinced ... is the only way to really protect the forest." He added, "We need new initiatives, new productive initiatives that create jobs, that create revenue for people in the Amazon, and that’s where our partnership with the United States will be very important for us."
These declarations built on a meeting between the presidents of the U.S. and Brazil in March 2019. Trump said, "President Bolsonaro and I are both committed to reducing trade barriers, facilitating investment, and supporting innovation across a range of industries, particularly energy, infrastructure, agriculture, and technology. [Bolsonaro]'s vision for freeing the private sector and opening the economy is the right way for Brazil to achieve strong economic growth."
The Brazilian leader confirmed the increase in military cooperation between Brazil and the U.S., through access to a military base in Alcântara and technological exchange.
The cozy relationship between Ambassador Chapman’s and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro also indicates increasingly close ties between the two governments. Chapman, who was appointed to the position in late March, came under fire after an article surfaced in Brazilian newspaper O Globo on July 30 claiming that he had asked for Brazil to lower ethanol tariffs as a political favor to boost Trump’s poll figures in Iowa.
The revelations have increased concern over Chapman’s strong ties to private industry. According to his U.S. Embassy bio, “Chapman’s career has focused on promoting economic development and security partnerships around the world.” Prior to entering the Foreign Service, “[H]e worked as a commercial banker in New York and Saudi Arabia, and later as a business consultant in Brazil and his hometown of Houston, Texas.”
The Private Sector and Covid-19
According to the U.S. Embassy in São Paulo, at least "four hundred of the five hundred largest companies in the United States are in Brazil, many for several decades, sharing and developing solutions for Brazil and for the world."
Some of these companies, with investments across several production and service sectors in Brazil, have joined onto the Trump administration strategy during the pandemic. By May 31, approximately $40.5 million had been donated by U.S. companies to support Brazilians during the pandemic.
Along with the private sector, the U.S. government donated $53 million to combat the impacts of Covid-19 in Brazil. This was a joint action between the American Chamber of Commerce for Brazil (Amcham), the U.S. Embassy, and the Mais Unidos group.
Mais Unidos is a collaborative social investment fund, partnering "the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Brazil through its U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and American companies."
"The United States government and private sector are strongly committed to helping the Brazilian people to combat Covid-19 in Brazil," the Embassy announced in a report.
Donor companies include agro-industrial giants including Bunge, Cargill, ADM, Dupont, McDonald's, CocaCola, Pepsico, and BurgerKing, among others. These businesses have directly and indirectly incentivized Amazon deforestation. Amazon Watch documented these trends in their report Complicity in Destruction II. Many of these donations came in the form of the companies’ own products rather than cash.
Cargill, Bunge, and ADM are the three largest soy producers in Brazil. These companies supply soy to many international firms, including fast food brands such as McDonald's, KFC, and Burger King. According to the environmental organization Greenpeace, at least 35 billion hectares (86 billion acres), an area the size of Germany, is devoted to soy production alone.
A Greenpeace report found that soy production in Brazil has more than quadrupled over the past two decades, and is expected to increase by another third over the next 10 years. This would be an area equivalent to three times the size of Belgium.
Soy is used to feed livestock, another factor in the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon. According to Jorge Camardelli, president of the Brazilian Beef Exporters Association (ABIEC), in 2019 Brazil broke its records in beef exports—1.8 million tons, worth $7.6 billion, a 12.5 percent increase from 2018. As of July 2019, Brazil had 232 million head of cattle distributed across the most strategic areas of the country, like the Amazon.
It is possible that American companies are worried about containing the spread of Covid-19. But these executives are also concerned with restarting commercial production and, with it, projects that have been put on hold. When the pandemic has passed, they hope the U.S. and Brazilian governments continue to turn a blind eye to the environmental and social consequences of transnational businesses in the Amazon region. Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to affect Brazil's most vulnerable populations with no end in sight.
Santiago Navarro F is an economist, journalist, photographer, and documentary filmmaker. He is co-founder of the investigative journalism portal Avispa Mídia, a contributor to the Truthout, and a prominent member of the Connectas Journalistic Community.
David Milan is a freelance writer and translator based in Tucson, Arizona. He regularly works with Avispa Midia, an independent media collective covering political, economic, and social events in Latin America.