The Platform

Indigenous girl in Colombia. (N. Mazars/European Union)

The COVID-19 pandemic has massively hit South America. Thereby, it became the main focal point of the virus with more daily cases than in North America. Similarly, indigenous communities are expected to suffer the hardest impact. Diverse Amazon indigenous nationalities in the Amazon basin, around Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Surinam, Peru, and Ecuador, have just started to receive the jolt caused by the new coronavirus. Besides facing directly the consequences of oil spills and diverse forms of environmental pollution, COVID-19 is becoming a major threat to these groups. Due to a vast variety of factors that will later be analyzed, the consequences of “coronavirus” among these communities could result in the disappearance and extinction of languages, ancient cultures, and entire nations.

According to the Pan American Health Organization, there are more than 20,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Amazon region. This is a worrying quantity that alarms the approximately 500 communities and 66 in voluntary isolation throughout the region. Organizations like REPAM and COICA are constantly following and analyzing the pandemic around these Amazon groups with the respective data such as location, affected communities, confirmed cases, and deceased. Approximately two weeks ago, COICA demanded a fund from the United Nations of five million dollars to face this pandemic that threatens to wipe out these ancestral communities that occupy nearly seven million square kilometers over nine different countries in South America.

The situation in these communities is extremely complex and hard to handle by governments. In most cases, states have been absent when dealing with the pandemic among indigenous communities. Lack of planning, protocols, access to medical supplies and services, and poor infrastructure are some of the main factors that are intensifying the risk for these groups. The Waoranis in Ecuador have filed a lawsuit against the government in order to demand urgent action facing this threat.

This negligence can be identified in many different cases. For instance, despite the requests and pleas made by Waorani authorities and organizations, extractivist activities have been continuing “as normal” over this sanitary emergency period. As a response, the Ministry of Health reached back to the community, but the answer received was superficial and insufficient to prevent the new “coronavirus” from spreading over Waoranis and other indigenous nationalities around the Ecuadorian Amazon like the Kichwa, Achuar, Siekopai, and Shuar. Instead of creating a committee that could organize and integrate protocols not only for this group, but for all of these communities across the entire state, the response provided encouraged Waoranis to coordinate actions with local governments across distant provinces such as Napo, Pastaza, and Orellana. The statement issued by the governmental institution shows how truly concerned the Ecuadorian state is towards Amazon’s indigenous communities, neglecting basic rights like health, life, and others. Life among these communities is in danger.

For Amazon societies, diseases brought by outsiders is not something new. In the 1960s, many communities were facing their first years of contact with the outside world, when they had to deal with diseases, spread by these “strangers.” However, the reactions by some indigenous communities have been pretty similar to those almost 60 years ago. Returning to the jungle is a good idea until the situation settles. In fact, this plan along with blocking access, and the exclusive use of natural medicine is highly recommended by Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana. According to the vice president of this organization, this plan could also help prepare communities for the “new normal” after the pandemic. As it is expected, lack of working places will eventually force communities to go back to plant their crops far away from bigger cities. Due to the lousy economic situation that will emerge in the next few months, trade is predicted to regain a major role in the economies of communities not only in the Amazon basin but across different regions.

The situation in Brazil is becoming more chaotic, being the second country in the world with most “coronavirus” cases, just after the United States. Amazonas, the Brazilian state with a vast majority of indigenous communities, is among the most affected by the pandemic. It is feared, according to political leaders of different parties in the country, that the Amazon basin could possibly become an important contagion route among communities in different countries. Brazilian photographer, Sebastiao Salgado, worries that some of these indigenous groups could disappear if there are insufficient efforts to control the spread of the virus, in an interview he made with the Argentinian journal Clarín. At the moment, there has been cooperation and planning between representatives of both Colombia and Brazil, who share a border, in order to prevent an exponential growth of cases in the Amazon and to limit the cases in the region. Nevertheless, it seems that these attempts to protect the lives of the region are behind where it needs to be.

On one hand, the role of governments regarding indigenous groups when facing the new virus has been an absolute disgrace. To illustrate, Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right regime in Brazil has had awful results in the COVID-19 context, not only in the Amazon region but in the whole country. In this way, risking the lives of its citizens and endangering ancestral cultures that could be considered even more vulnerable than the rest of the population. On the other hand, several organizations have had an active job when speaking out about the needs and dangers of these groups.

As it is the case of Alliance for Human Rights working next to Waorani organizations to speak out and demand justice for the lack of action by the Ecuadorian government and its representatives, completely disregarding basic human rights. Other indigenous organizations have also been crucial to obtain, organize and manage data, and coordinate actions about the current situation. All of these actions have helped with the objectives of preserving lives and limiting the danger that these nations are immersed in. The role of international media has been important, as always. Nevertheless, this news never makes the front pages and is not spread as much as it should be. Now, it is only a matter of time and quick responses to figure out the future of these different nationalities.