A Pandemic Tragedy on Brazil’s Lago Verde

This story is adapted from The Life and Death of a Minke Whale in the Amazon: Dispatches from the Brazilian Rainforest, by Fábio Zuker, translated by Ezra E. Fitz.She died on March 19, 2020. The wake went on until dawn. Many people, including the elderly, came to spend the night watching over the body of Dona Lusia dos Santos Lobato. She was 87. The Indigenous leader, whose life story is inextricably linked with the struggle for the rights and recognition of the Borari people, was beloved in her village, Alter do Chão, Brazil, along the banks of the Tapajós River in the western state of Pará.Dona Lusia died from Covid-19 , which generated trepidation and fear. Relatives and others who’d been in close contact with her were quarantined, but the statement confirming the fact, by the Pará State Department of Public Health, also gave rise to a sense of mistrust among family members. They were reluctant to believe the state, that her death was the result of the new coronavirus.Dona Lusia was the first Indigenous person to succumb to the disease in Brazil, but because she didn’t live in a village recognized by the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio, or FUNAI), the governmental body responsible for mapping and protecting land traditionally inhabited by Brazil’s Indigeonous people, her death is not included in the statistics collected by the Ministry of Health.

Courtesy of Milkweed Editions
Just as her death prompted uncertainties, Dona Lusia’s birth took place in a state of in-betweenness. Alter do Chão is known for its beautiful lakes and beaches, which have made it one of the most well-known, picturesque places in the Amazon region. Local families pretty much lived on fishing, hunting, and clearing land for cultivation until the mid-1970s, when a land route connecting the village with the urban area of Santarém was opened. Since then, tourism has taken over.During the Amazonian summer, which runs from August to October, the Borari people have traditionally taken advantage of the dry season to move around. They would visit family in nearby communities or cities, or travel to lowland areas to plant crops where low river levels expose particularly fertile soil. It was during one of these seasonal trips in 1933 that Dona Lusia was born: in a canoe, on the way to Urucurituba, in Amazonas state, as her mother was going to visit relatives.“Despite being a child of the waters, my mother didn’t know how to swim,” says Ludinea Lobato Gonçalves Dias, better known as Neca Borari, and one of Dona Lusia’s seven daughters. Neca is also an important Indigenous cacica, an indigenous chief, in Alter do Chão. For her, Dona Lusia is a source of inspiration.“I praise God that my mother gave me a lot of strength to be an Indigenous person,” she says. Then, her voice trembling with emotion, she remembers Dona Lusia’s advice: “Just be careful, because lots of leaders end up getting killed, and I don’t want to see your body turn up somewhere. But always go with strength.”