Covid-19 and Deforestation: A daunting threat for indigenous health

By Pedro Gagliardi     

[9 min read]

Until this day, December 14th, the Brazilian Ministry of Health estimates that Brazil has reached an impressive record of more than  6.9 million Covid-19 cases followed by almost 181 thousand deaths in the country. At international level, Brazil, according to John Hopkins University, currently represents more than 10% of all infections and 12% of all deaths reported in the globe being only behind the US and India. 

Surprisingly, if the pandemic was not enough, this ominous and deadful scenario still competes attention on the newspapers  with the increasing levels of deforestation within the Brazilian ecosystems. Since March of this year , Brazil has had  roughly 30 thousand km² of land – from Amazon forest to Cerrado habitat – endangered by deforestation. The Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported  in October that the Amazon Forest had the highest level of deforestation since its monitoring system – Real Time Deforestation Detection (DETER) – was initiated in 2015.  The data shows that in this same month, the land loss due to deforestation was 50% higher when compared to October last year.  The concern due to environmental depredation in the middle of a health crisis could yet potentially harm and expose part of the population to the new virus unnecessarily, and unfortunately, reports from major channels across the country such as Instituto Social Ambiental, Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM),   have already described the increasing likelihood of COVID-19 contagion among indigenous due to deforestation and/or environmental depredation. 

Knowing the perils from deforestation and covid-19 and how they could be exponentially dangerous for indigenous communities was broadly discussed among experts and the public. The qualms over this problem and the unnecessary exposure of this groups led me, along with Humberto Laurades, to write this paper where we found robust evidence that there is, in fact, a negative impact of deforestation in the Amazon forest and Cerrado to Indigenous Health during the coronavirus pandemic. In other words,  the more deforestation occurs, the higher will be the probability for indigenous to be infected by Covid-19.

Our results claimed that at least 22% of cases among Indigenous people could be explained by the influence of deforested areas in Amazon and Cerrado ecosystems in a period that ranged from March 1st until August 31st, 2020. On a daily basis, we estimate that, on average, for every 100 km² of deforestation 2.4 to 5.5 covid-19 cases loom among indigenous people after 14 days of its identification by DETER.

The analysis was based on the levels of deforestation provided by INPE`s DETER system; the number of hospitalization due to covid-19 provided by the Database of Public Health System (SUS) called as DataSUS; the number of cases registered by the Special Secretary of Indigenous Health (SESAI); the number of cases registered by a National Indigenous Organization “Articulação do Povos Indígenas do Brasil” (APIB). The investigation was conducted at municipality level portraying roughly five thousand districts inside the country.

An important aspect of this paper was to consider that the impact of deforestation was boosted due to its “mechanisms”. In other words, Indigenous health is harmed from the presence of illegal mining; land conflict between indigenous and farmers, miners and loggers; wildfires and cattle ranching. We believed that all these mechanisms were part of the explanation to higher cases among indigenous, and, not surprisingly, we have found evidence to support this hypothesis. Among them, we highlight that illegal mining and land conflict represent the most concerning scenarios corresponding, on average, to an increase of 179% and 63% of cases in municipalities with deforested areas, respectively. Other papers, such as “Winds of Fire and Smoke: Air Pollution and Health in the Brazilian Amazon”-  recently published at “Instituto de Estudos para Politicas de Saude” (IEPS) – complement our analysis by contending that wildfires are aggravating the health of  local communities inside the Amazon region and increasing the number of hospital admissions due to respiratory issues which could lead a higher exposure to the virus.

Moreover, our analysis investigated how deforestation could affect other cases based on patients` race, and verified whether indigenous people were, in fact, the race mainly  impacted by this anti-environmental activity. Interestingly, our results showed, through the data provided by DataSUS, that indigenous were the only communities suffering by deforestation in terms of more Covid-19 cases. Additionally, this finding intensifies the consequences by being infected. According to IPAM, indigenous communities have the highest Covid-19 mortality rate in the Amazon region when compared withthe other ethnicities.

Our attempt for this analysis was to promote robust and unbiased results in respect to deforestation and covid-19 cases among indigenous people. An important piece for our research was the number of cases described by both the SESAI and APIB. Unfortunately, there is an asymmetry in the number of infected when comparing the cases registered from these two institutions. As we reported in the article, the latter assumes that the Secretary for Indigenous Health is under-notifying the actual number of indigenous contaminated by the virus, and therefore, undermining the severity of the problem within these communities. Until this day, the APIB claims that there are almost 6 thousand more cases than SESAI`s last report. It is crucial to close this gap and identify the exact real number of indigenous infected, in order to better guide health agents and public servers who provide assistance to these communities. However, even if we were more conservative and assumed only SESAI`s estimates to our analysis, we would still find robust evidence on the consequences imposed by deforestation to Indegenous health. 

We conclude that there is strong evidence regarding the positive relationship of deforestation on the number of cases of COVID-19 for the indigenous population. Among the numerous issues currently faced by these communities, deforestation is bringing a great new danger by  transporting this new virus within their lands. This article comes with the primary objective of alerting the responsible institutions about how the environmental emergency in Brazil is transversally worsening the humanitarian and epidemiological crisis. Our main objective with the article is to stimulate further investigation on this topic with the available data mainly from public institutions that can precisely combat both the coronavirus and deforestation in Brazil.

Read the complete paper at:


Pedro Gagliardi was born in São Paulo and had a bachelor`s degree in International Relations at PUC-SP. His professional experiences were mainly focus on the private sector. He has worked for the investment bank Itaú BBA, FIESP and ultimately in the broker insurance company Marsh LLC. Pedro`s main goal with this master is to learn ways to promote economic development in Latin America. He believes that with this opportunity, he will be able to contribute and understand several challenges and possibilities to stimulate economic impact for a developing country, specially in Brazil.