May 27, 2020
by François-Michel Le Tourneau, Deputy Director of iGLOBES and Senior Researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)
Though Manaus, situated in the center of the Amazon, has been one of Brazil's first cities hit by the coronavirus, the small state of Amapá, on the border of French Guiana, is currently experiencing a very difficult health crisis.
The numbers partially show this since out of a population of about 750 000, there are already over 6 000 known cases and 160 deaths, which puts the mortality rate at over 2.5 times more than the Brazilian average -though still far from France and Spain's. But the numbers only show part of the truth since the tallied cases are those who have been identified and tested. As everywhere else, it is only the tip of the iceberg.
COVID-19 IN AN AMAZONIAN VILLAGE
In these Amazonian confines of Brazil embodied by Amapá, we can observe not only the consequences of the fragile healthcare system - it was expected, but also just how much the global economy's ups and downs can impact even those who live more or less isolated in the middle of the Amazon Forest. To get a clear picture, I asked for news from my friends in São Francisco do Iratapuru, a community located in a sustainable development reserve (SDR) of 806 000 hectares whose inhabitants live mainly from the harvesting of Brazil nuts.
The village is at about 50 km as the crow flies from the center of Laranjal do Jari, and it takes 3 hours to get there, alternating between traveling by dugout canoe and taking a long road trip by truck or 4x4, impassable during the rain season.
For the past ten years, I have been following this community that symbolizes the traditional Amazonian population's efforts to maintain their way of life - and the forest - while improving their living conditions . In the case of Iratapuru, a partnership with the cosmetic company Natura has enabled the local cooperative to pay the castanheiros a better price for their nuts for almost fifteen years.
"We have almost all been sick. Four people had serious respiratory problems and had to be evacuated to the hospital. I also had a fever, and lost my sense of smell. It's coming back little by little", E. wrote, one of the bosses who organizes harvesting operations in the areas attributed to his family. From what he said, a large portion of the 100-150 residents were contaminated. As others have told me, social distancing is almost impossible in such a small village where everyone lives right next to his neighbor and where everything is done together. For many people, the sickness felt like a bad flu. Only a few cases became serious. Now that they are being treated in town, the authorities plan to send a team over there to assess the situation. A little late for sure, since most of the residents have been contaminated.
A STATE STRONGLY HIT
This quick and widespread dissemination into rural communities seems to have been generalized in the region. "What's really missing is information. People don't know so they contaminate each other and wait too long before coming. When they get here, their case is already serious..." This was how E.'s sister, a healthcare worker in town, described the situation to me. According to her, things are still under control in Laranjal do Jari. The patients are sorted in the clinics and only the known cases that need it are sent to the hospital's COVID unit that has 6 beds. All full. "We can still cope, but if the wave continues to increase, it'll be harder". The situation is critical however. With 28 Covid-19 related deaths for a population of 39 000, the mortality rate is reaching the same level as the most affected regions in the world. And some worry that it is just the beginning of the epidemic.
In Macapá, Amapá's capital, where the largest portion of the population is concentrated, they are having a hard time there as well. The local government just signed a contract with a NGO specialized in healthcare aid to have it manage a unit specifically focused on the virus. According to them, going this route allows for more flexibility because public spending regulations are not as strict for NGOs as they are for public services. So, this ancillary service seems to be on the verge of beginning its operations. But it's also a risk. In April, the federal police has already launched an operation to dismantle a scheme to overcharge hospital equipment. This would not be a first in Brazil, and even less in Amapá. The Macapá airport construction has already given the police and the auditors of the Federal Court of Accounts of the Union a lot of work...
What Amapá provides while confronting the pandemic is a pretty good look at today's Brazil. On the one hand, there are structures. There are hospitals, competence, people who are involved, technological tools. There are ventilators - not enough; tests - not enough either. Rural hospitals dedicated to the virus can be set up. And on the other hand, there is disorganization and improvisation with whatever is available, not enough money or technological tools, politicians whose speeches are not aligned with reality, corruption...Brazil seems to be between two worlds, not far from the western "first world" it is dreaming of, but yet still very far from providing its population, especially in the remotest areas, with satisfactory healthcare conditions.
A CRISIS FOR THE FOREST ECONOMY AS WELL
But the Covid-19 crisis is not just happening in the hospitals, and Amapá is going to endure a second blow from the capital all the way to the isolated forest communities like São Francisco. Normally, the month of March is the start of the Brazil nut harvest season, one of the main products of what is called in Brazil "extractivism", i.e. the non-destructive harvest of forest products. Although Brazil has conceded first place to Bolivia as the world's largest producer of the product that carries its name, the nut is an important resource for many traditional communities, and it has been popular on the market which has greatly increased its price. Around 35 000 tons are gathered every year in the Brazilian Amazon for a value of around 100 million reais. In 2016, the Brazil nut hectoliter was bought from the harvesters at up to 200 reais (= 4R$ per kilo).
They harvest it around their villages or put together expeditions to the natural forest areas because, until now, the Brazilian nut tree is not grown on a plantation. For some, this type of promotion could be essential to saving the Amazon Forest since this activity is only possible if the forest cover remains intact and because it provides communities with income. But the price needs to be right and also reward the castanheiros' environmental services. That's why, with its policy of partnering with traditional Amazonian communities, Natura buys the product at a better price.
The season was going to be good. The nut trees were abundant this year. But the pandemic ruined everything. Faced with the fall of the demand and the closure of its stores everywhere in the world, the company Natura finally decreased by two thirds the amount of Brazil nut oil it had planed to purchase from the community. The loss of income is huge. Will other buyers make up for this by at least buying at the market price? "Of course not! Nobody is buying!" E. tells me when I asked him the question. "We've even decided to not harvest several areas. If the price had at least been at 150 R$ per hectoliter, we would have gone. But there are so many nuts on the market that you're happy if they give you 100 R$. So it's not possible. We're not going to work for nothing...".
AT THE END OF THE GLOBALIZATION CHAIN...
These difficulties are part and parcel of many business owners today. But you wouldn't think they would be the same for Airbus and for a traditional community in the Amazon Forest. For the inhabitants of Iratapuru as well, globalization has become a reality and they are now part of the global cosmetic industry supply chain. A decrease in sales in Paris and New York impacts them directly and instantaneously. They also have to arbitrate between their production costs and the sale price and cancel their harvesting expeditions if the difference isn't favorable.
So São Francisco do Iratapuru has received a double blow because of the pandemic. The inhabitants have felt the virus' bite right to the bone, and they have lost the season that represents the height of their economic activity and their income. They will survive from one and the other, but in both cases it will take time to get back to how things were just less than two months ago. This should make us stop and think about the weakness of "market solutions" purported to save the Amazon just with economic promotions of traditional products?
François-Michel Le Tourneau is a senior research fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), Deputy Director of the UMI iGLOBES and a member of the Institut des Amériques Scientific Committee. His work focuses on settlement and use of sparsely populated areas, especially the Brazilian Amazon. He is particularly interested in indigenous people and traditional populations and their relationships with their territory. He has authored a number of papers in national and international scientific journals (list here on HAL-SHS, here on Researchgate or here on Academia.edu).