Indigenous People of Latin America in the COVID-19 Era

Gerardo Szalkowicz

Without basic services, excluded by the health system, without documentation to access social programs, and with roads cut off from food supplies, how does the pandemic impact on indigenous communities in Latin America?

“In this pandemic we are not all in the same boat, we are all in the same sea; some in yachts, some in boats, some in lifejackets and others swimming with all their might. The simple metaphor used in a communiqué by seven indigenous organizations in the Mexican state of Hidalgo helps to address the issues of which social sectors will be most affected by the impact of the coronavirus. In Latin America, the indigenous peoples are among those who are throwing their hands in the water, resisting the contempt of those in power and not being seen on screens and microphones.

There are no or insufficient targeted measures or special protocols; lack of basic services (mainly drinking water); pre-existing diseases linked to poverty and absence or remoteness of health services; complications in selling and buying food due to the closure of roads and markets; lack of documentation to access social programs; little preventive information with an intercultural approach in indigenous languages. A combination of problems that leave many of the region’s indigenous communities extremely vulnerable. If the previous situation was already one of emergency, the pandemic is deepening inequalities.

The European conquest that swept away the peoples that inhabited the continent not only had the sword and the Bible as its main weapons. The epidemiological factor was also key: imported diseases (typhus, smallpox, bubonic plague) greatly helped to decimate the native population during the greatest genocide in history. In fact it is said that it was smallpox that really destroyed the Aztec empire. Other epidemics, such as malaria, measles and influenza, also wreaked havoc on indigenous territories throughout history. That is why the irruption of Covid-19 set off alarms and multiplied calls for urgent attention. Its penetration into the communities would be tragic and would do a great favour to the transnational extractive companies, always eager for land and natural resources.

The indigenous population in Latin America exceeds 45 million people, which represents 8.3% of the region, being the area with the highest indigenous population density on the planet. There are 826 different indigenous peoples. In its annual report for 2019, ECLAC stressed that the poverty of indigenous people is 26% greater than that of non-indigenous people.

Recently, the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC) called on the region’s governments to hold a specific meeting on the subject and noted that “none of the global or regional information sources includes disaggregated data on the indigenous population”.

Peru: washing your hands with petroleum-based water

In the Peruvian Amazon, the rivers have been stained with oil in recent decades, multiplying problems and diseases. Four indigenous federations in the Department of Loreto warned of “the precarious conditions in which the pandemic has found us: a context of persistent oil contamination that poisons water and food, outbreaks of malaria or dengue fever, and the absence of the state that often means days of travel for basic matters like getting to a health center”.

The organizations demand measures to evacuate possible people who have been affected and “information to be disseminated in the communities with clarity, security, relevance and in the indigenous language”. Peru has more than 4 million people who identify with a language other than Spanish. Although some dissemination materials have been translated, another problem arises: many communities do not have internet, electricity or electronic equipment to work with the official educational platform “Aprendo en casa”. The Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Forest, which groups some 1,800 native communities, accused the government of “evident neglect and repeated discrimination” and denounced before the United Nations “the danger of ethnocide due to the inaction of the Peruvian State”.

In Peru, where three indigenous people have already been reported infected, another phenomenon is taking place: the massive exodus of poor families who flee Lima on foot because of hunger and lack of work. Most of them are indigenous people who return with their belongings to the mountains and the jungle.

Colombia: the pandemic of violence

The indigenous population in Colombia – almost two million inhabitants, 4.4% of the total – has a great organizational development. The Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) issued for the first time an epidemiological alert and activated a contingency plan that includes roadblocks allowing only the passage of food and basic products. From La Guajira to the Amazon, the Indigenous Guard is preventing tourists and private institutions from entering the villages. The first to do so were the communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta that blocked access to the Tayrona National Park, one of the main tourist attractions. “We divided the strategy of prevention and containment into three actions: pedagogy to understand the pandemic, territorial control through indigenous guards, and mobilization of the knowledge of indigenous medicine experts,” explained Angel Jacanamejoy, leader of the Indigenous Traditional Authorities.

ONIC confirmed the first death from the coronavirus and reported that there are seven indigenous people infected and 90 under observation. He also denounced that “the shortage of drinking water, food and biosecurity implements and the confinement due to the armed conflict aggravate the situation”. The fact is that, beyond Covid-19, the greatest danger continues to be the paramilitary groups. During the government of Iván Duque, 162 indigenous people have been killed. And the harassment and deaths have not diminished during the quarantine. Luis Fernando Arias, senior advisor to ONIC, said: “In recent weeks there has been harassment, especially in the north of Cauca. The genocide against the indigenous peoples has become the worst pandemic of ours in recent years”.

Mexico: Zapatista Defense

With some 16 million people, Mexico is the country with the largest indigenous population in the region. In many areas, access cutting was also implemented. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) declared a red alert in its communities and closed its organizational centers “considering the lack of truthful and timely information as well as the absence of a real plan to confront the threat of the pandemic”. It also placed checkpoints and sanitary barriers at the entrance to their communities and activated a preventive quarantine for those who returned to their villages. The EZLN also called for “not letting the fight against feminicidal violence fall and in defense of the territory and Mother Earth”. The communiqué ends by saying: “We call on you not to lose human contact, but to temporarily change the ways in which we know ourselves to be companions, comrades, sisters and brothers”.

Similar measures were taken by the National Indigenous Congress (CNI). Carlos González, one of its leaders, highlights another important element: “In the indigenous peoples the elders play a fundamental, vital role for the survival of the communities and their reproduction. This is a very serious concern”. González added that the health infrastructure is precarious, but stressed that, as a counterpart, the indigenous peoples “will be able to generate a better defense thanks to their own community life”. The CNI foresees that the worst situation for the indigenous people will be in the cities, which is why it is collecting money to support urbanized families.

From Patagonia to the Rio Bravo

The same fears, dilemmas and demands are repeated throughout the geography of the continent.

In Bolivia, the law recognizes 34 nations and native peoples. In the Indigenous Territory of the Isiboro Sécure National Park (Tipnis), which contains 64 communities, they denounce the neglect of the de facto government, the lack of information and the shortage of medicines and food due to the interruption of trade. The leader Pedro Moye said that “no biosecurity material or medicines arrived in the rural area, nor any protocol that we should follow in case we register any contagion. They only went to the provincial capitals”. And he pointed out another difficulty: “There are no ambulances or means to get a sick person to a hospital quickly. That is the biggest concern”.

In Brazil, where there are now at least three indigenous people dead and 31 infected, the ghost of the A-H1N1 flu, which has killed hundreds of mostly Guaraní Indians, flies overhead. The fear of Covid-19 is heightened because a third of the deaths of Indians in Brazil are due to respiratory diseases. The National Permanent Forum in Defense of the Amazon demanded “a contingency plan that takes into account the specific characteristics of its peoples and their community lifestyles, which undoubtedly facilitate the rapid spread of the virus”.

The other big threat is Jair Bolsonaro, who in addition to minimizing the pandemic and going against all recommendations, gave carte blanche to the deforestation of the Amazon and expelled the contingent of Cuban doctors, leaving many communities without health care. Nice Gonçalves, a journalist and indigenous activist, says: “In 2019, child mortality increased by 12% due to the withdrawal of Cuban doctors and the dismantling of indigenous healthcare”.

Also critical is the situation in Paraguay, where indigenous people are setting up roadblocks. The organization Tierra Viva said: “The statistics before the pandemic indicated that 65% of the indigenous people are in a situation of poverty and more than 30% in extreme poverty; added to the current situation of isolation that makes it impossible to go out to work. Structural exclusion is deepening and hunger is hitting the communities of the Chaco region hard”.

That is why

The world that has given birth to the pandemic exposes the naked face of the system and opens the door to urgent debates on the need for a new civilizing paradigm. Perhaps the time is right to focus on the philosophies of life proclaimed by the original peoples, synthesized in concepts such as “sumak kawsay” or “buen vivir”.