Quilombolas, indigenous people and riverside dwellers report the challenges of social isolation in the interior of the Brazilian Amazon. ‘Staying at home’ can mean lack of access to prescribed medication for daily use, communication, energy and the impossibility to receive retirement pension or salary.

The great distances, the precarious public transport, communication and the health system represent a compounded challenge in the fight against coronavirus in the Amazon. Photo: Carlos Penteado.

“We organised ourselves and we are in quarantine, going through difficulties, we are very sad because this is a highly contagious disease [Covid-19]. I’m scared because of my age”. The concern reported by Aluízio Silvério dos Santos, 70, of the Tapagem Quilombola Community is felt in the different quilombola communities (ethnic groups formed by descendants of slaves), riverside and indigenous peoples of Oriximiná and Óbidos, municipalities located north of the State of Pará in the Brazilian Amazon.

If they need medical assistance, residents of the community of Aluízio, located in the rural area, need to travel 10 to 12 hours by boat to the municipality council of Oriximiná, where the hospital network has only one ventilator and no Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to serve its 73,096 inhabitants. In Óbidos, a neighbouring municipality, the situation is similar. There is only one ventilator from the public health system for a population of 52,137 inhabitants. And no ICU beds.

Together, Oriximiná and Óbidos, add up to 135,803 km2, a territory greater than that of England (130,395 km²). The great distances, the precarious public transport, communication and the health system represent a compounded challenge in combating the new coronavirus in the Lands of Indigenous, Quilombola and Riverside peoples of this region.

On the 9th of May, the bulletin from the Secretary of Health for the Municipality of Óbidos indicated ten confirmed cases of COVID-19, including one death. On the same date, the Municipality of Oriximiná reported eleven confirmed cases and three deaths.

The lives of quilombola, riverside and indigenous families have been significantly altered by social isolation.
Photo:  Carlos Penteado 

Closed communities and changed routine

Since March, indigenous, quilombola and riverside associations in Óbidos and Oriximiná have been instructing everyone to stay at home, through official communications and awareness raising in the communities. “There has been a great mobilisation among the indigenous peoples themselves, organisations and partners so that we can add efforts in order that indigenous peoples have security and guarantee the coronavirus does not advance in the territories”, said Angela Kaxuyana, treasurer coordinator of the Coordenação das Organizações dos Indígenas Amazônia Brasileira/COIAB [Coordination of the Brazilian Amazon Indigenous Organisations]. Angela belongs to Kaxuyana indigenous people who live in the Kaxuyana-Tunayana Indigenous Land, one of four Indigenous Lands in Oriximiná.

In the Boa Vista Quilombo, the leaders have reinforced the call for people to stay at home. “We are advising people not to go out at all, to clean the food and carry out hand hygiene. We are paying special attention to the elderly and children. In our community there is no agglomeration, no meetings, and the school and the church are closed”, explains Miracelia Santos de Souza, leader of the community which consists of 115 families.

The proximity of Boa Vista Quilombo to the village of the mining company called Mineração Rio do Norte (MRN) is an additional challenge for social isolation. The company, which is the largest bauxite producer in Brazil, continues with its activities. “What is worrying is that we isolated ourselves here in the community, but the mining did not close completely” says Amarildo Santos de Jesus, community coordinator. He says that the transit of boats and ships continue to send supplies to the employees’ village and the shipment of ore. The situation is especially delicate since, according to Amarildo, “70% of our community works there and returns daily to our community”.

The lives of quilombolas, riverside dwellers and indigenous people have been significantly altered by social isolation. “It’s being difficult because we had never been in this situation”, says Andréa dos Santos Alves from the Muratubinha quilombola community, which is a two-hour drive from the municipality council of Óbidos. “There are many difficulties. We were used to a routine and now we have to change the day to day because of the difficulty of access to reach the city” adds Andréa.

Aluízio also comments on the difficulty of having his daily life modified, especially in communities where social life is intense. “I am with my family, but we are a little distant [from each other], we are not used to it”.

Quilombo in Oriximiná. Photo: Carlos Penteado.

Social isolation makes health care difficult

The necessary social distancing has made access to the health system even more difficult for quilombolas and riverside dwellers. “Before, the service came to the community every month. Now it has stopped coming and this delays the treatment of diabetics, hypertensive patients, pregnant women, children who had to be vaccinated”, reports quilombola Andréa dos Santos Alves, health agent in Muratubinha quilombola community, where 59 families live.

In the same municipality, in the Arapucu  quilombola community  – which is more than an hour by boat from the municipality council of Óbidos – Catarina Soares Franco, health agent and leader of the community association, says that the services are more restricted, even for those who manage to go to the municipality council. “Health care has become more complicated now. In the community there is a basic health care unit that works only with one nursing technician. There is no consultation with a medical doctor. This medical care is only available in the city but, due to the pandemic, they are restricted to avoid overcrowding”, said the health worker whose quilombo community consists of 79 families.

The purchase of medicines for the treatment of chronic diseases means that many still have to travel to urban centres. However, the suspension of public transport by the authorities in the two municipalities as a measure to contain the virus, made trips to the city even more difficult.

Evanilson Marinho de Figueiredo, president of the Associação das Comunidades das Glebas Trombetas e Sapucuá/ACOMTAGS [Association of the Communities of Glebas Trombetas and Sapucuá], which represents riverside communities in Oriximiná, demands a government action so that people can continue having their health treatments. “We need a policy aimed at distributing medicines in the communities. The hypertensive people, who are already under treatment and are in the risk group, suffer more”, points out the association’s leadership representing over 700 riverside families residing in the Trombetas-Sapucuá Agrarian Extractivism Settlement Project.

On its turn, the residents of the villages of the four Indigenous Lands in the region have the support of the Secretaria Especial de Saúde Indígena [Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health] linked to the Ministry of Health. Ângela Kaxuyana (COIAB) recognises the importance of this support in the territories, mainly to monitor contagion in the villages, but points out that “we have the situation of indigenous people who are in the urban context, whether it be to get health treatment, to study, or even those who were unable to return to indigenous territories because of the quarantine”.

Quilombo in Óbidos. Photo: Carlos Penteado.

Impacted food security

In some communities, it is possible to ensure an important part of food through farm products, fishing or hunting, in addition to extractivism. “Due to the abundance here, with fish, flour, we eat roast fish and açaí and we will do that until the end of this disease, hoping that it does not reach us here”, reports Aluízio from Quilombo Tapagem.

However, this is not the reality for all quilombola communities in Pará. “Staying at home in unacceptable living conditions is not good because people need to go out and look for food. Some communities have plenty of fish and game, but in the communities that are closer to the cities, things are already more difficult, they have more difficulty, more needs”, reports José Carlos do Nascimento Galiza, executive coordinator of the Coordenação Nacional de Articulação das Comunidades Negras Rurais Quilombolas/CONAQ [National Coordination for the Articulation of Black Rural Quilombola Communities].

Ângela Kaxuyana (COIAB) explains that there are villages where it is possible to fish and hunt; however, some territories do not allow their own food production. “There are territories that are totally invaded and there is no place to hunt and fish, and you find it difficult to access any food” says Angela.

In addition, some foodstuffs and cleaning products are only available in the city. To Evanilson, the riverside leadership (ACOMTAGS), it is precisely the lack of access to food that makes people not stay in isolation. “The City Hall has provided basic food parcels for the population of the urban area, but in the rural area we have nothing. The Mineração Rio do Norte has been providing food parcels to six communities, but there are still another 25 communities unattended to. This means that people are not able to remain totally isolated in the home.”

In some communities, it is possible to ensure an important part of food through farm products, fishing or hunting, besides extractivism. However, this is not the reality for all communities. Photo: Carlos Penteado.

Loss of income

Because of the transport restrictions between communities and cities, riverside dwellers, indigenous people and quilombolas cannot sell and market their produce. “Communities have reported that quarantine prevents people from commuting to sell their products at the municipality’s council. The transport was cancelled, because of that people are producing, but cannot sell”, argued Galicia, from CONAQ.

This is what happens in the Arapucu quilombola community, in Óbidos, where the commercialisation of fish is an important source of income. Davi Silva, coordinator of the Association of Remaining Quilombos of the Arapucu Community, points out this difficulty. “With this Covid-19 issue, people were no longer able to go fishing because of the difficulty of selling the fish, of draining their production”, he explains.

The impact on income is also felt with the difficulty of going to the city to receive salaries (in the case of teachers and health workers), withdraw monthly social security pensions and Bolsa Familia (federal program of direct cash transfers to families in poverty) and even the emergency aid recently released by the federal government to compensate for the ongoing loss of income due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Many quilombolas reported problems in accessing the emergency aid. “An enormous difficulty is having access to the emergency aid procedures, at times the internet does not work, and other times the system is down. Many did not have a bank account and needed to open a digital bank account, but they were unable to complete the process,” says Douglas Sena dos Santos, agent for the Social Pastoral of the Diocese of Óbidos, quilombola of the Arapucu community.

Restricted access to communication

Ensuring communication is another sensitive issue reported by those interviewed in this report. Most communities do not have access to a telephone or an internet network or if they do have access, it is poor.

Another difficulty is that most communities do not have access to the electricity grid. Electricity depends on generators powered by diesel, which is increasingly difficult to obtain due to restrictions on travelling to the city. Without diesel there is no electricity, there is no internet access, and even cell phones cannot be charged. “Buying oil for the generator, in order to have the internet, is one of the biggest difficulties”, says Aluízio, who is an advisor at the Mãe Domingas Quilombola Association.

Campaign to communicate preventive measures to COVID-19 carried out by the Comissão Pró-Índio de São Paulo, the Diocese of Óbidos and the riverside association Acomtags. Photo: Evanilson Marinho

Difficulty in accessing information

According to respondents, not all communities have received guidance on how to prevent Covid-19. “There is no guidance from health authorities to talk about prevention. Other communities do not have this support, and access to information is difficult for them”, says Miracelia Santos de Souza, from the Boa Vista quilombola community.

“I pass on the information I receive by cell phone; I go to the area near the river that has a signal. That is how I have passed on the information. I’ve delivered the folders [produced by the Comissão Pró-Índio and the Diocese of Óbidos] to the houses, talking about preventive measures. As a health agent, I give guidance and answer questions”, explains Andréa of the Quilombo Muratubinha.

Another challenge is to have access to reliable news, in didactic language and adapted to the local reality, as pointed out by Ângela Kaxuyana, “There is difficulty for information to reach the territory and in the context of the Amazon in a language that the indigenous people can fully understand and grasp what is happening. We are talking about diversity of languages, territories that do not have access to the internet. There are territories that use only radiophones. How to make the information actually reach and filter them so that fake news doesn’t reach the territories,” ponders Angela.


If quilombolas, indigenous people and riverside dwellers strive to fulfil social isolation, the same is not true of invaders. “Our great difficulty today is to control people who live in the city coming to our territory. “At the weekends a lot of people come from the city”, complains Davi, Coordinator of the Association of Quilombo Arapucu. The community drafted a letter prohibiting people from entering. “We took it to the radio for this guidance to be disseminated. The community is not managing to prohibit the entry of people from the city or other municipalities”, says Catarina, vice coordinator of the association of Arapucu. The quilombolas have also put up signs on the road asking people not to enter their territory.

Similar problems are being experienced by the Pancada Community in Oriximiná. On 1st May, the community issued an official letter requesting the support of the authorities to prevent tourists and prospectors from entering its territory.

Whether due to the precarious health system or due to the difficulty of getting to the municipalities’ council, prevention becomes even more fundamental for the communities of quilombolas, riverside and indigenous peoples in this region of the Amazon. But for that, it is necessary to ensure that their basic needs – food, medicine, income and access to quality information – are ensured, as well as the protection of their territories.

It is necessary to ensure that their basic needs – food, medicine, income and access to quality information – are ensured, as well as the protection of their territories. Child from Quilombo Patauá do Umirizal, in Óbidos. Photo: Carlos Penteado 


News article: Bianca Pyl

Editing: Lucia M. M. de Andrade

Photos: Carlos Penteado and Evanilson Marinho

Translation: Cíntia Mendonça Garcia

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