Deforestation in the Amazon in August, 2020. © Christian Braga / Greenpeace
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The original version of this story was published in Portuguese on July 17 by Greenpeace Brazil.

Since COVID-19 arrived in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, AM, Brazil, many Indigenous leaders have been working to keep the situation from worsening and bringing devastating consequences for the 23 Indigenous Peoples of the region

Among the people who put their daily lives aside to help save the lives of others are Elizângela da Silva (of the Baré People) and Janete Alves (of the Desana People). They are both coordinators of the Women’s Department of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Rio Negro (FOIRN). The two are leading an initiative in which women who were previously dedicated to handicrafts such as bags, earrings and necklaces began to produce the newest essentials for the pandemic: protective masks.

Women are producing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among Indigenous Peoples in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Amazonas, Brazil  © Christian Braga / Greenpeace
Women are producing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among Indigenous Peoples in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Amazonas, Brazil © Christian Braga / Greenpeace

“We saw on television that everyone wore a mask to prevent [the disease], and we were concerned with how to fight to avoid catching this virus here,” said Janete. “We ran a women’s campaign that started to collect hygiene kits, and as the days went by, it evolved,” she explained.

To kick off production, they first identified the artisans who knew how to sew and asked them to join the project. Then, they used fabric masks they had received from women of the Sateré-Mawé Indigenous People as a pattern. Later, they found tutorials for different types of masks on the internet.  To date, approximately 16,000 masks have been produced and delivered to every Indigenous territory in the region.

At Elizângela’s house, on the edge of the city, sewing machines shared a spot with the handicrafts they used to produce. A woven-straw hand sanitizer holder is found hanging on the wall, a symbol of the “new normal” in the times of the pandemic.

Seventy-two-year-old Maria Martins (Baniwa people) was one of the artisans called to work for the cause. Elizângela’s aunt said that although she never imagined she’d need to wear a mask, she was happy to participate. Seeing the young women join in solidarity was another reason for her to beam with pride.

The funds to make the masks were raised from donations from the “Rio Negro, Nós Cuidamos (We Care)” Project, coordinated by Elizângela and Janete, and with guidance from Instituto Socioambiental (ISA). Greenpeace Brazil brought sewing machines to them via the Wings of Emergency Project, which has been transporting emergency aid items to different regions of the Amazon during the pandemic.

Knowledge and wisdom at life’s service  

The satisfaction of being able to help thrills Elizângela and Janete. However, fear of getting sick persists. Both have three children and each live with the worry of bringing the virus home. Both have family members who have already been infected. Thankfully, all of their family members have recovered from the virus.  They say that “homemade medicines”, including teas prepared with traditional medicinal herbs have been essential for caring for the sick in their communities.

“I worry most about losing our relatives, not only from within my region but the entire Rio Negro,” says Janete, whose youngest daughter is ten months old. “We lost several leaders, and they were our living books, they told of history, and that history is a blessing,” she said.

Janete Alves, from the Desana people, accompanied a Greenpeace flight to deliver the masks and hygiene and protection supplies to the Upper Rio Negro community © Christian Braga / Greenpeace
Janete Alves, from the Desana people, accompanied a Greenpeace flight to deliver the masks and hygiene and protection supplies to the Upper Rio Negro community © Christian Braga / Greenpeace

While delivering food to a family, she came across the service of a well-known Indigenous man who had been taken to the capital for treatment. “He died in Manaus (capital of the state of Amazonas, Brazil), and we couldn’t even pay our respects over his body because he was cremated in Manaus. We were deeply saddened. Our relative went away and came back as ashes in a box. This is so unreal for us,” she says.

Despite all the loss, they continue their work, courageously and confidently. “We are warriors and very hard workers. Despite everything that is happening, we are fighting to save lives. We will not give up,” said Elizângela.

Janete agrees, “We hope to use our knowledge and wisdom, to value our culture. Losing our relatives hurts and not getting to say goodbye to them makes it even worse. We are fighting so it does not happen anymore,” she said while drying her tears.

Luana Lila is the Head of Storytelling at Greenpeace Brazil.