The Death of Antonio Bolívar, an Indigenous Elder in the Amazon Rainforest

Antonio Bolívar, who appeared in an acclaimed Colombian film, “was one of the last original Ocaina,” his son said.

On the last Sunday of April, in the small city of Leticia, Colombia, a thirty-eight-year-old security guard named Cristian Bolívar was at work when he received a phone call from his wife, who had some bad news. “Your dad is still very ill,” she said. Antonio Bolívar, at seventy-five, was a respected indigenous elder, and for three days he had been suffering chills and a high fever, which the family had been trying to lower with liquids, soothing baths, and acetaminophen. By that Sunday afternoon, he was also having trouble breathing. “I left my post right away,” Cristian told me. He rode his motorbike to his father’s small wooden house. Antonio’s temperature had reached a hundred and four degrees, so Cristian called an ambulance, which, he said, took three hours to arrive. Antonio turned to Cerina, his partner of twenty-eight years, and said, “Sweetheart, I am just going to the doctor to get some antibiotics. I’ll be right back.”

Leticia is situated in the Amazon rainforest, at the southern tip of Colombia, bordering Brazil and Peru, the two countries with the highest number of covid-19 cases in Latin America. The number of reported cases in the Amazon had been increasing since mid-March, especially in Manaus, Brazil, and Iquitos, Peru. In Manaus, a city of more than two million, which has been recording up to a hundred and thirty fatalities a day (up from its normal toll of twenty to thirty-five), the dead are being buried in mass graves. In Iquitos, which has a population of half a million people, hospitals do not have enough beds. The three countries are divided by the Amazon, but the river towns are closely connected to one another. “The sugar we buy is from Peru, and the rice we eat is from Brazil,” a doctor on the Colombian side told me.

The governments of the three countries have announced plans to protect those living in the Amazon, but so far few measures have been implemented. (President Jair Bolsonaro’s reckless response in Brazil is making the process more difficult for the other countries.) The first confirmed patient in Leticia was reported just a week before Antonio Bolívar got sick. Within a month, there were more than a thousand confirmed cases. The city, with a population of about fifty thousand, has only a small private clinic and a public facility, the San Rafael hospital; between them, there are barely more than a hundred beds and eleven ventilators. There is no I.C.U. in Leticia, and doctors have to send patient samples all the way to Bogotá to be tested for covid-19.

Antonio Bolívar was admitted to San Rafael that Sunday night. Cristian and Cerina went to the hospital each day but were not allowed to see him. “They told me he was doing fine, eating well and joking with the staff,” Cristian said. But, on the night of April 30th, a neighbor came to the house and told him, “Your father just passed away.” She had seen the news on social media.

Bolívar had not been tested for covid-19, but, given his symptoms, the doctors believed that he had been infected by the coronavirus. They told Cristian that Antonio had gone into cardiorespiratory arrest, and they could not revive him. The following morning, a hearse took his casket to the town cemetery, where the mayor had ordered the building of more vaults. Cristian rode behind on his motorbike, to the entry of the cemetery, and watched as a forensic team buried his father. The indigenous communities in Leticia and the surrounding areas were under quarantine, so no other mourners were present. “That was the saddest part,” Cerina told me. “I used to tell him, when he was still alive, that if he passed away, I would throw him a big funeral, like the one he deserved.”

Antonio Bolívar had been a celebrity in the Amazon since 2016, when he appeared in “Embrace of the Serpent,” a movie by the Colombian director Ciro Guerra. (It can be streamed on the platform that took the region’s name: Amazon Prime.) Set in the early twentieth century, the movie portrays the exploitation of indigenous groups by rubber companies and Capuchin missionaries. Bolívar played Karamakate, a member of a fictional group called the Cohiuano, which had been almost completely wiped out. The Times’ review noted that “he is no innocent, noble savage but an angry, morally complex individual with a heart full of grief.”

In his first scene, Karamakate is drawing what looks like a jaguar on a large rock by a river, wearing a loincloth and a necklace made of crocodile teeth. His calm expression changes when Evan (Brionne Davis), a botanist, arrives in a small canoe. (The movie is inspired by the travel diaries of the American botanist Richard Evans Schultes and the German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grunberg.) Evan wants Karamakate to help him find a rare medicinal plant, the yakruna. “You devote your life to plants?” Karamakate asks him. “That’s the most reasonable thing I’ve heard a white say.”

Karamakate agrees to help Evan in exchange for some coca leaves, to cook into mambe, which some indigenous groups chew for spiritual and medicinal reasons. “I forgot mambe existed. Now I don’t know how to make it,” he admits. Karamakate, it turns out, is on a quest: he has not just forgotten how to make mambe; he has lost a spiritual connection with nature. “These rocks used to talk to me,” he says. “They answered my questions. The line is broken. My memories are gone. Rocks, trees, animals, they all went silent. . . . Now I am empty.”

The film was an international success. It won awards at Cannes and Sundance, and became the first Colombian film ever nominated for an Oscar. (Bolívar attended the ceremony in Los Angeles, and videos show him on the red carpet wearing an elegant black suit, a necklace, and a headdress made of colorful feathers.) But perhaps what’s most striking about the film is how much Karamakate’s life resembles Bolívar’s. “When we realized that he was going to act with us, we shaped the character to him, to his experience, to his knowledge,” Guerra told me recently.

What’s perhaps most striking about the film “Embrace of the Serpent” is how much the life of the character played by Antonio Bolívar resembled his own.

Bolívar “was one of the last original Ocaina,” Cristian explained. In the late nineteenth century, the Ocaina were an indigenous group in the western Amazon region of Putumayo. Researchers estimate that, by 1909, there were at least two thousand people who identified as Ocainas. Now there are just two hundred, and only fifty who speak the Ocaina language. The Ocaina, along with six other indigenous groups, call themselves “the People of the Center,” and they share a tragic history. At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, a British rubber company enslaved, tortured, and killed many of them. “It must always be borne in mind that the Indian is no party to the contract,” Roger Casement, an Irish diplomat working on a special report for the British government, wrote, in 1910. “He is compelled by brutal and wholly uncontrolled force—by being hunted and caught—by floggings, by chaining up, by long periods of imprisonment and starvation, to agree to ‘work’ for the Company.”

“Only a few Ocainas remained after that,” the anthropologist Juan Alvaro Echeverri told me. Although most of the survivors live in Peru now, a few remain in the Colombian Amazon. Antonio Bolívar was orphaned at a very young age, and lived in Leticia with the Witoto, another group belonging to the People of the Center. But he identified as an Ocaina, despite the fact that, like Karamakate, he was forgetting his roots. “He had no one to speak his language with,” Echeverri, who knew Bolívar, told me. He recalled that one of the few women who still spoke the Ocaina language fluently in Leticia would sometimes try to speak with Bolívar, but all he could say to her was “I can’t understand.” Bolívar’s knowledge of botanical traditions, however, was intact. Cristian recalled that the only time his father grounded him was when he cut all the leaves off one of his medicinal plants. Luis Ernesto González, a friend of Bolívar’s, remembers talking with him about a fishing method that employed barbasco, a poisonous plant.

Friends and colleagues describe Bolívar as having a particular relation to the rainforest. “I ask the world to please stop drilling oil in the Amazon,” he said, in a speech at Cannes. Last year, he appeared in the Netflix series “Green Frontier,” which chronicles the struggles of an indigenous couple to protect their culture. He asked his acting coach, Ana Isabel Velásquez, to “respect nature” before each scene. “We would talk to the river or the trees, telling them, ‘I am coming in. I promise I will be respectful,’ ” she told me last week. “It was something short, but we needed to ask permission, to get some protection.” She would do it mentally, and he would do it sometimes chewing mambe. “We need this for the scene to be perfect,” he told her.

Nelly Kuiru, a forty-three-year-old Witoto woman, opened a film school in Leticia, and she told me that Bolívar was one of the first to volunteer to help with her project. “He was there to guide us,” she said. “Elders like him are the ones telling us the stories that we write. They guide us on what we should be saying, on how we should be saying it.” In their last conversations, she said, “He would say ‘We have to fight to not lose our identity as a people, to not disappear like my own people did.’ ”

Juan Pablo Chiquiza is a twenty-five-year-old native of Leticia who recently graduated from medical school in Bogotá. With two other doctors, he is in charge of attending to almost ten thousand people, many of whom belong to twenty-two indigenous communities in Colombia’s Amazon forest. Chiquiza is based in the village of Puerto Nariño, a two-hour boat ride upriver from Leticia. “The first time I got here, I thought this looked like a prison,” he told me, about the village’s only hospital. A public facility, it has nine beds for adult patients, four for children, and six oxygen tanks. Mold grows on the walls, and the ceiling is falling in in some places. When we spoke, two covid-19 cases had been confirmed in Puerto Nariño; one of the people who tested positive was an indigenous man in his eighties. Chiquiza was able to send him by boat to San Rafael hospital, in Leticia, but the man died soon after he arrived. “We suspect many more here have the virus,” Chiquiza said. (A week later, he told me that at least twenty-six new cases had been reported.)

Chiquiza didn’t know Bolívar, but, after Bolívar’s death, the “Green Frontier” production team got in touch with him. They wanted to help the people of the Amazon who had worked on the series, and asked Chiquiza what he needed. “To be honest, what we need is a new hospital,” he told me. But the team sent N95 masks and basic supplies, such as soap and disinfectant. With those supplies, and others sent by friends and small business owners, the hospital has been able to get by. “Eighty per cent of what we have right now comes from donations,” Chiquiza told me. (He has since received protective equipment for doctors and two stretchers from the state health department.) One of his main concerns is how to isolate patients, especially as most people in the communities live in houses with no interior walls. “We have to isolate the whole family, and we have to assume that everyone is a positive case.”

Another man in the village has been trying to figure out strategies to protect the Amazon communities. Rosendo Ahué is a Tikuna and a leader of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, which has been trying to keep track of how the virus is affecting each of more than a hundred different indigenous groups in the country. (Ahué himself recently tested positive for covid-19, and has been isolating with his wife in Puerto Nariño.) So far, the organization has identified more than five hundred confirmed covid-19 cases in two dozen communities; about seventy-eight per cent of them are in the Amazon. To stop the spread of the virus, the organization started calling on communities to stay in their territory, control the flow of people in and out, and isolate elders when possible. “We have been taking the recommendations from Western science and using it with our indigenous knowledge,” Ahué told me. (They have been buying acetaminophen and ginger drinks and lemon tea.) “We have also asked people not to visit sacred places right now,” he said. “And we don’t name the disease. I say, ‘There is a pandemic,’ or ‘it’s a disease.’ But I don’t name it, because the elders told us not to call it. It would be a way for it to come here faster.”

Nelly Kuiru has also been trying to find ways to help. She recently started a crowdfunding campaign to provide food and medicine specifically for the elders. “When an elder passes away, a whole world of knowledge disappears, and our planet grows poor,” the campaign Web site reads. The fear of losing an elder in the Amazon is not just the fear of losing a loved one; it’s the fear of losing a culture, an identity as a group, and a way of looking at the world. The linguist Doris Fagua, who has worked for years with the People of the Center, has seen cultures disappear, when a dominant culture imposes itself, or change, when indigenous people marry outside their group. “There’s always been some mixture, and from there new cultures arise,” she told me. “But what we are witnessing right now is an accelerated loss.”

Bolívar’s death was first publicly announced on Colombian radio, by Camilo Suárez, an indigenous state legislator known as “the deputy of the jungle.” Just a week later, Suárez himself passed away, after exhibiting what seemed to be symptoms of covid-19. In a five-minute video he recorded days before his death, on a street corner in Leticia, he asked the President of Colombia to acknowledge the emergency in the Amazon. “We don’t have the infrastructure or the equipment to treat cases,” he said. The government has started to send protective equipment, more doctors, and specialists to run a laboratory for covid-19 tests. But, if cases keep increasing, it might not be enough. Toward the end of the video, Suárez says, “If you don’t bring attention here, I think we could disappear.”

Camila Osorio