Amazon indigenous protesters vow indefinite roadblock
Members of the Kayapo indigenous tribe are blocking a highway through the Brazilian Amazon demanding help against the new coronavirus and an end to illegal mining and deforestation Joao Laet AFP/File

Armed with spears and bows, dozens of indigenous protesters in Brazil vowed Thursday to maintain a roadblock on a key highway until the authorities listen to their demands for help fighting COVID-19 and deforestation.

Members of the Kayapo Mekranoti ethnic group have been blocking highway BR-163 through the Amazon since Monday outside the northern town of Novo Progresso.

But they vowed that they would no longer lift their blockade periodically to let truckers through, as they had done for the past two days.

"We're going to stay right here until the government sends its representatives to talk with us," one protest leader, Mudjere Kayapo, told AFP.

The highway is the main artery to ship corn and soybeans, two of Brazil's main exports, from the country's central-western agricultural heartland.

A federal judge has ordered the protesters to stand down, citing the economic damage they are inflicting.

She rejected an appeal Wednesday, and has ordered the federal police to remove the protesters if they do not comply.

The Kayapo Mekranoti warned that would lead to violence.

"We do not want to fight. But we will not accept the army or police coming here and removing us by force. If that happens, there will be blood spilled on the asphalt," they said in a letter to the government's indigenous affairs office, FUNAI.

Wearing feather headdresses and body paint, the protesters burned a letter from FUNAI rejecting some of their demands and calling for patience on others.

The Kayapo Mekranoti are demanding far-right President Jair Bolsonaro's government release funds they say they are owed for environmental damage the highway caused to their land.

They also want help fighting illegal mining, deforestation and the new coronavirus, which has hit especially hard among indigenous people in the region.

In Brazil, the country with the second-biggest COVID-19 death toll worldwide after the United States, 26,000 indigenous people have been infected and 690 have died in the pandemic, according to the Brazilian Indigenous Peoples' Association (APIB).

"Our rights are being violated," the protesters said.

"Indigenous health is growing more fragile by the day... We are here to defend the Amazon and protect our territory. But the government wants to open indigenous lands to illegal projects, including mining, logging and ranching."