While there is no scientific evidence the tea can treat COVID, Brazil's indigenous Kayapo communities are using it to avoid the worst impacts of the virus
By Lucas Landau
PARA STATE, Brazil, Jan 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the middle of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, far from the laboratories of the world's major pharmaceutical companies, the Kayapó indigenous people of Para state are using a drink made from vines to help them ward off the worst effects of COVID-19.
As incursions into the Amazon by illegal loggers and miners have increased during the pandemic, potentially exposing forest-dwelling tribes to the virus, the Kayapó say their natural treatment is helping to keep them safe.
The skin of the vine - the name of which the community is keeping secret - is boiled and strained into a tea which is drunk three times a day, for five days, explained Po Yre, a 23-year-old member of the Kayapó community from Pykany village.
"The medicine is very strong. When you take it, you get weak, sometimes with red eyes and a headache. But, the next day, it works. You wake up well," said Po Yre, who took the remedy after he tested positive for COVID-19 in July.
While there is no scientific evidence that the tea can combat the virus, Kayapó leaders have said all community members should drink it as a form of prevention against COVID, which has killed nearly 200,000 Brazilians, according to official figures.
Villagers say it is the best way to keep the pandemic from wiping out indigenous communities, which they say have had limited support from the federal government.
Health experts warn that the coronavirus pandemic endangers indigenous communities with limited or no access to healthcare in the Amazon and whose communal living makes social distancing difficult.
Amazon communities were particularly hard hit in the early stages of Brazil's coronavirus pandemic last year.
"The (relevant) agencies did not act in a timely manner to protect us, leaving us to question if they are really there for us indigenous people," said O-é Kaiapó Paiakan, the daughter of iconic Kayapó leader Paulinho Paiakan, one of the pioneers of Brazil's indigenous movement, who died from COVID-19 in June.
The government's indigenous affairs agency, Funai, directed all questions to the Ministry of Health.
The ministry said in an emailed statement that there are more than 400 health workers monitoring and treating Para's Kayapo community and the government has been sending essential supplies - such as masks and hand-sanitizing alcohol - to the villages.
"The district's professionals maintain a constant dialogue (and) make home visits … with the leaders, health counselors and the general population of the villages, addressing the preventive and protective care of COVID-19," according to the statement.
When the Kayapó get sick, they usually start with traditional remedies and only move on to using conventional medicine if necessary, said Dr. Douglas Rodrigues, a specialist in indigenous health at the Federal University of Sao Paulo.
The Kayapó find that the vine tea eases the symptoms of COVID-19, "whether because the teas have active ingredients or they have components that strengthen and hydrate," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
'A PERFECT STORM'
There are an estimated 12,000 Kayapó in the states of Pará and Mato Grosso, according to the Instituto Socioambiental, an organization that proposes solutions to environmental and social issues in Brazil.
Among that population, there have been less than 20 deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to SESAI, the government's indigenous health service.
While indigenous advocates say that figure is likely an underestimate, it is still much lower than the 2.5% fatality rate among non-indigenous Brazilians, according to statistics from the National Council of Health Secretaries.
Indigenous rights advocates say rampant encroachment of the Amazon's forests by loggers, miners and farmers greatly increases the risk that villagers will catch the coronavirus from outsiders.
Rodrigo Balbueno, a biologist and consultant at the Kabu Institute, which represents the Kayapó communities from the Bau and Menkragnoti indigenous lands in Para state, says there has been a boom in the number of incursions during the pandemic.
Comparing satellite images of the area from August 2020 to October 2020, Balbueno said it is possible to see that new roads have been built and more areas have been cleared of trees - all indications of increased illegal logging and gold mining.
Environmental advocates say encroachers have been emboldened by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's plans to open up the Amazon to commercial mining and agriculture, which he says will lift indigenous people from poverty.
At the same time, when Funai banned outsiders from entering indigenous lands at the start of the pandemic, the order also stalled inspections that were meant to stop illegal activity in the rainforest, Balbueno explained.
"This loosening of inspections and the feeling of freedom (granted by Bolsonaro) was the perfect storm for everything we are seeing now," he said.
Scientists say that combatting rising deforestation rates in the Amazon rainforest - a major store of planet-warming carbon that stretches across nine South American countries - is crucial in the fight against climate change.
LOSING HISTORY AND TRADITIONS
Even with villagers avoiding cities and drinking regular doses of the vine tea, Chief Abiri Kayapó of Pykatoti village is still worried that the virus might take hold.
"There has been no serious case here in the village. Everyone has been treated with the medicine from the forest. But I worry about the invasions," he said, walking along a trail through the forest to point out medicinal plants.
Kayapó leaders have forbidden anyone in the community from disclosing the name of the plant species used in the tea treatment to prevent their forests from being further stripped of resources, said Abiri.
That secrecy, villagers say, is essential to making sure the pandemic does not claim any more of the people who hold the community's history and traditions.
"COVID-19 has killed women, the elderly and leaders who took with them a whole history of struggle and culture," said O-é Kaiapó Paiakan, who is still shaken by the loss of her father.
"Elders are of great importance for the permanence of our culture. They maintain our way of life, handing down their stories for younger generations to pass on."
Reporting by Lucas Landau; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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