Latin America has now become the new COVID-19 global hotspot, with a total of 4,327,160 cases as of 26th July, making it the region with the fastest growing infection rate in the world. The pandemic has placed indigenous lives in the Amazon – repeatedly decimated by virus infections since colonization in the 15th century – at risk again. The Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin reported that as of 11th August there were already 38,719 cases and 1,362 deaths in the Amazon Basin alone. The cost of this human tragedy extends beyond personal and family losses; as indigenous people and leaders perish and these communities are pushed closer to the brink, the world loses diversity and critical cultural heritage.
The Amazon’s indigenous populations have long been vulnerable. Prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, more than 60 million indigenous peoples populated North, Central and South America. Just a century later, only around 10% survived as many succumbed to foreign diseases such as smallpox, measles and influenza, against which their immune systems were not prepared. Two factors were key to the spread of diseases: the Christian missionaries that spread out across the region between the 16th and 19th centuries and the boom of the rubber industry in the 1880s, which saw indigenous people work in slave-like conditions.
The spread of COVID-19 mirrors the past. For instance, according to the NGO Amazon Watch the novel coronavirus has reached Brazil’s biggest indigenous reserve, Yanomami, as a result of 20,000 illegal miners who invaded their habitat; this led the Yanomami tribe to launch the online campaign #MinersOutCovidOut to expel them. Moreover, on 9th and 13th April the Brazilian newspaper O Globo revealed that missionaries of the Christian evangelical group Missão Novas Tribos do Brazil are responsible for spreading COVID-19 in the Javari River Valley. The threat to indigenous communities from infection stems in part from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s commitment to commercialize the Amazon, in some cases in areas previously protected by Sydney Possuelo’s no-contact policy. This leaves illegal loggers, miners and evangelizing groups free to come into contact with previously isolated and protected communities.
While the way COVID-19 has reached and is affecting the indigenous populations in the Amazon evokes the past, the broader circumstances have changed. Spanish and Portuguese colonization meant that Amazonian territories and the indigenous communities within them were divided across nation states, making the modern-day protection of indigenous people not a national issue but a supranational one. As such it requires collaboration among the nations in the region which share major portions of the Amazon. This is especially true for Colombia, Peru and Brazil whose borders in the Amazon are blurry and often crossed by nomadic and semi-nomadic indigenous populations.
There has been progress, but it is not enough. In the past twenty years, international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have lobbied states to protect indigenous people’s rights, respectively by appointing a Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and by adopting the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169).
Since the beginning of the pandemic, in the face of inattention by nation states to protect these vulnerable citizens, supranational human rights bodies – including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – have been pushing for indigenous rights protection. However, with meetings cancelled or postponed and with supranational organizations’ limited influence at the local level, it is the duty of the Colombian, Peruvian and Brazilian central governments to provide greater assistance to indigenous peoples and their communities.
Until now the Colombian government has yet to take measures to protect indigenous people, as it finds itself in the delicate position of trying to fulfil the 2016 Peace Agreement between the government and the FARC guerrillas. This lack of action has led indigenous communities to ask for specific guidelines and tools to protect them. Increased militarization in the country to enforce quarantine measures contributed to the perpetration of human rights abuses, especially against Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. This has led not only to the loss of hundreds of indigenous lives, but is also a violation of indigenous populations’ autonomy and land rights.
Peruvian indigenous communities have also been affected by threats to their land and human rights and by lack of state protection. In response to those threats, indigenous leaders appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the UN to request action, citing the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, many indigenous communities had blocked access roads to their territories to prevent outsiders from entering. The government responded that communities were not allowed to make such decisions, and insisted that the police arrest the indigenous leaders involved.
Brazil’s president Bolsonaro has made explicit throughout his presidency that he would not support indigenous causes. In this environment, indigenous people have been left to fend for themselves. Takumã Kuikuro, indigenous leader in the Upper Xingu, denounced that ‘not one penny came from the municipal, state or federal governments’ for their protection. These native populations feel increasingly vulnerable as their land and autonomy are destroyed, all while the attention is diverted from their more basic rights because of the pandemic.
Politics in the Amazon region have never been more divisive and nationalistic. The conditions of indigenous populations in the region have been worsened by Brazilian president Bolsonaro’s dismissive stance towards the pandemic, and by his choice to cut spending for the protection of indigenous communities and to open up the Amazon for commerce, which inevitably led to increased presence of miners, loggers and farmers. However, as of 1st August, Bolsonaro has taken new unexpected steps to curb deforestation and forest fires, while Peru has taken the opposite decision to re-start logging.
While Peru and Colombia keep their borders closed, entry to Brazil by non-resident foreign nationals by air is now allowed. In this context, nomadic indigenous populations and indigenous communities in border cities like Iquitos and Leticia – located in the Tres Fronteras area where Peru, Colombia and Brazil’s borders meet – are particularly at risk. The biggest threat is not only the loss of lives, but also the loss of culture as indigenous elderly leaders retain the oral knowledge about their communities, traditions, and the rainforest itself. When Brazilian chief Aritana Yawalapiti died of dcoronavirus on 5th August, following an exhausting nine-hour drive to the closest hospital, he left a void for the people of the Upper Xingu and the risk for the tribe’s language to disappear, as he was one of its last speakers.
Governments’ negligence towards indigenous protection and their lack of coordination at the regional level become all the more worrying considering indigenous communities’ typical living conditions in the Amazon. Access to sewer services or running water is limited. Sanitation and hygiene thus remain poor and hand washing – the major tool against the spread of COVID-19 – becomes especially difficult, putting indigenous people at a major risk of contagion.
At the same time, formal healthcare in rural Amazon is almost non-existent, with hospitals underequipped and located far away from indigenous settlements. To worsen matters, indigenous communities are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because of food insecurity and a strong presence of tropical diseases that increases their risk of fatality..
Overall, indigenous communities have been mostly left alone in their fight against COVID-19, a new imported disease. Indigenous populations are sadly accustomed to the arrival of foreign diseases and have historically been victims. The current situation is exacerbated by a lack of guidance and coordination among national governments. This is particularly worrying in the case of Peru, Colombia and Brazil, as they share porous, ill-defined borders in the Amazon. COVID-19 represents another setback in the protection of indigenous civilizations and their important cultural heritage. However, this crisis is far from over and governments can still take a positive turn in the protection of indigenous people. Doing so, though, requires cooperation among states and more active government programmes. Protection of the indigenous people must become a priority if we are to avoid what Peruvian indigenous tribes collectively called a ‘ethnocide by inaction’, a human tragedy not just for those communities but for the world at large.
Chatham House does not express opinions of its own. The opinions expressed in this publication are the responsibility of the author(s).