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Indigenous peoples: why it matters to us all if they catch coronavirus

They are the defenders of nature, land and biodiversity

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This article was translated for LAB by Chloe Budd. You can read the original (in Spanish) here.

Main image: Raya, an old Nahua. More than half of his village was destroyed after the land opened to oil exploration. Image: Survival International


They are the defenders of nature, natural territories and areas that, with the pretext of the collapse of the global economy, could become victims of an onslaught of destruction.

As the new coronavirus advances in Latin America, it is the indigenous people who represent almost 10% of the population that are most vulnerable. This is a Latin America where, according to the UN, three out of every ten people living in extreme poverty are indigenous.

More than half of the indigenous people in the world over the age of 35 suffer from diabetes.  Rates of infant mortality, malnutrition, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases are also high. Several international media outlets, such as The Guardian, warn that “if the virus enters into the different indigenous communities, the consequence will be total devastation.”

For the global movement, Survival International, the problem is preexisting. In a report titled “Progress can Kill”, which studies the issue across five continents, they conclude that there are several essential issues regarding the health of indigenous people: that their territorial rights be respected; that their traditions be preserved; that they do not have ‘progress’ imposed on them by preventing them from continuing their own way of life; and that they have access to health systems that are carefully designed by and for them.

Image: Survival International’s Progress Can Kill report

‘Indigenous people who control their own land are healthier and enjoy a better quality of life than those who have been expelled from their lands and those who have had “development” imposed’, explains Fiore Longo, the director of the Survival office in Paris and Madrid.

For Longo, when indigenous people are expelled from their land and when their resources are stolen, many indigenous people end up living in poor villages in the cities, marginalised and impoverished. Their health and well-being plummet. They suffer from deadly diseases hitherto unknown to them. Epidemics such as depression, addiction and suicide skyrocket. This is especially true for groups that were previously nomadic and who had little or no contact with the majority society, as is the case of the Nukak people in Colombia.

For Alex Villca, from the National Coordination in Defence of Indigenous Rural Territories and Protected Areas (CONTIOCAP), in Bolivia, indigenous people are not only vulnerable to coronavirus but to what will follow afterwards: ‘there will be a large gap in the global economy and, therefore, this could be an excuse to further attack nature, indigenous territories and protected natural areas where these communities are based.’

The problem is not just the pandemic and its consequences; it is also what is happening while we all our attention is focused on the pandemic’s progress. The media’s attention is distracted towards this one subject, enabling,  the murder of social leaders, several of them indigenous,  to be even less noticed than usual. Since the quarantine began in Colombia, three social leaders have been assassinated.

Action and Inaction

Payments must be made to sacred sites, called ezwamas, by means of materials that have thorns, such as a prickly pear cactus, pichiwey, elephant cactus, goat’s horn, rooster spur, liana, Ceiba tree and cactus, with the exception of medicinal plants such as lemon, grapefruit and tangerine. This is stated, according to Semana, in a letter sent to the other towns of her region by  Edilma Loperema Plata, the coordinator of the group of women in the indigenous Wiwa people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa., following the imposition of certain restrictions such as the closure of  Tayrona Park and access to the Sierra Nevada.

The letter sent by Edilma Loperena Plata

Hundreds of indigenous communities around the country are demanding greater state presence. The indigenous people of Casanare are asking for the distribution of medical materials, equipment and supplies. The Chocó people have declared themselves in a state of Permanent Assembly. The Arhuaco Shelter in Sierra promoted preventative quarantine, as did the Awá people in Ricuarte, Nariño, and in the towns in the Valle del Cauca. The Kankuamo people adopted measures to ‘safeguard good living, territorial harmony and the right to health’. The National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) have reported that there are mining companies that are not complying with the mandatory quarantine.

In Peru, the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP) issued a statement to all the communities in the country, especially to those in the Amazon: ‘the Amazon heat and the sacred plants will confront it, but they will not be able to stop this tragedy. We call for deep concern and immediate action.’ They want to avoid the ‘health ethnocide of more than 500 years of colonisation’.

In Argentina there is concern about the situation of people like the Wichis: ‘we cannot face hunger, let alone the coronavirus’’ said Rodolfo Franco, a doctor from those communities. In Bolivia, for director Alex Villica, ‘health personnel are not qualified to deal with the situation if the virus increases in the country.’ In Mexico, the Zapatistas have closed their resistance centres and various organisations are distributing information about the virus in indigenous languages, as well as in Ecuador, where the health crisis is increasing exponentially. There, the towns are demanding specific measures from the government, while the Chapeton, Pakayaku, Sarayaku, Molino, Teresa Mama and Montalvo communities are suffering following severe floods. In Guatemala, where an indigenous person has already died of coronavirus, a doctor, who was selling ‘vaccines’ against this disease to indigenous people in the town of of Chisec has been arrested. In Paraguay, the Ayoreos have reported that the construction of a road did not stop despite the mandatory quarantine and that this is exposing them more than usual. In Chile, the Mapuches are circulating remedies for the fever and have cancelled ceremonies.

The Uncontacted

The risk that hangs over uncontacted indigenous people is especially concerning to the governments of Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia, particularly in the Amazon basin.

Robinson López, Coica.

‘There are 506 indigenous communities who would be at imminent risk, in addition to 76 isolated indigenous communities, whose immune systems are very weak and any type of flu could lead to their extinction. A pandemic of this magnitude for native communities would mean a catastrophe of great proportions,’ says Robinson López, from the Coordinator of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin (COICA). There are already about 80 confirmed cases in the region.

‘The communities in voluntary isolation are more vulnerable because their immune systems are not capable of defending themselves against any virus, bacteria or disease. Apart from their immunological vulnerability, there is also the sociocultural vulnerability, which involves the lack of and difficulty in accessing health services” explains Jackeline Borjas Torres, a specialist from the Amazon programme of the organisation DAR (Law, Environment and Natural Resources) in Peru.

There, various organisations are asking the Peruvian government for ‘the respect for self-determination.’ ‘If the peak of the epidemic already threatens a state of collapse for the public health system, the consequences for indigenous communities and for people living in voluntary isolation (the Isconahua, Mashco Piro, Murunahua, Nahua, Nanti) may be even more devastating,’ concludedjournalist Nelly Luna in the Washington Post.

In Brazil, the state authorities of the Amazon region declared the situation an emergency, with visits to indigenous reserves prohibited. The Association of Indigenous People of Brazil (APIB) cancelled all its meetings and assemblies but they have not stopped condemning Jair Bolsonaro. The president not only downplays the pandemic but also encourages contact with uncontacted indigenous peoples: he appointed an evangelist missionary as head of the uncontacted indigenous department of FUNAI: he is already raising funds to buy helicopters to ‘reach ten communities of people who live in extreme isolation.’

Paradigm Shift

Quarantines are not just to stop the pandemic; they also offer a chance to think: more and more people are stopping activity and staying at home with time to do this. It is a moment of concern, of course, but also a moment where productive logic has reached an impasse and its consequences quickly become apparent: recession, yes, but less pollution as well. Even the canals of Venice are now crystal clear. The logic of empathy and interdependence is emerging: there are groups of academics in Latin America promoting action in the face of coronavirus to revitalise the community.

The Argentine sociologist Mempo Giardinelli states that ‘beyond the present fear and disorder, it is the planet’s environmental conditions that are being altered in all orders and on all continents, and consequently the danger to humanity goes much further than illness strains and infections’. Our way of life and production are at the heart of what is happening. We have to think of ourselves again as part of a whole in which we are not the centre, but one more part. It is valid to fight against COVID-19 but also to go further. ‘The opposite is to surrender to apocalyptic ecstasy, the comfort zone of the new right that offers us one more minute of life at the expense of mutilating ourselves,’” says Alejandro Galliano.

Not only must indigenous people be helped to protect themselves from the advances of the agro-industrial frontier and epidemics such as coronavirus. The paradigm of conservation also needs to change. Thanks to the belief held by indigenous people that we belong to the land and not that it belongs to us, indigenous communities are the best guardians of nature: 80% of the biodiversity that remains on the planet is in their territories. If coronavirus affects indigenous people, it will affect us all.