Indigenous communities fear being 'wiped out' by coronavirus and fight with scant resources amid lack of government support

Leaders, in the Amazon Basin and Indonesia, are being forced to employ creative strategies to protect people

Louise Boyle
New York
Saturday 11 April 2020 03:14
Comments
Drone footage shows recently deforested land in the Amazon

Indigenous peoples are at risk of being wiped out by the coronavirus, community leaders have warned, as they battle the pandemic with meagre resources in the void of government support.

Community leaders, in the Amazon Basin and Indonesia, are being forced to employ ad-hoc strategies to protect people in remote regions with few medical facilities and staff, limited transport and a patchwork of communication.

“The Indigenous Peoples of the nations of the Amazon are under siege, and with us, the territories we have protected for generations,” said Dinamam Tuxá of the Tuxá people in Brazil.

The pandemic could have long-term implications for communities in some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, already under threat from deforestation and climate change.

There are 1.4m cases of the coronavirus across the world and more than 85,000 deaths have been reported, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported.​

The Congress of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), represents indigenous peoples from nine Amazonian nations – Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Suriname, French Guyana and Guyana. Its members represent 505 indigenous ethnicities and more than 66 isolated communities, which remain without contact with the outside world.

José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, COICA coordinator, told The Independent that there were already many cases of coronavirus in the Amazon and some indigenous people were in serious conditions.

He said that COICA members had asked their national governments for assistance in fighting the coronavirus but there had been no response.

Michael McGarrell of COICA on a pontoon in Patamona Nation territory, Guyana

The organisation has decreed a state of emergency in the Amazon basin due to the pandemic.

He said: “There is no adequate assistance present in the communities. So our internal strategy of the Indigenous Peoples has been to close the communities, to close access to where the Indigenous Peoples are, without the sanitation or even military support of the governments.”

Michael McGarrell, from the Patamona Nation in Guyana, is a COICA human rights coordinator and member of the Amerindian People’s Association (APA). He is from the remote village of Chenapou, a community of around 500 people located deep in the rainforest.

Mr McGarrell told The Independent that indigenous communities do not have the medical resources to fight a potential outbreak and local leaders are doing what they can to protect people.

Response to the outbreak has been slowed by national elections in Guyana last month which failed to form a government.

Guyana has 33 confirmed cases and five deaths, according to WHO.

Covid-19 tests are done at the main public hospital in the capital, Georgetown, which is a difficult and expensive trip for indigenous communities.

Mr McGarrell said: “From my village to Georgetown, a direct flight takes about an hour and there are only four flights a week.

“We need to move to point-of-care testing kits and the ability to access results. We don’t want to have to wait a week to know someone is positive [for Covid-19] after that person has been interacting with other community members. That would totally devastate our communities.”

Villages have community health workers but with only basic medical supplies available, they are woefully under-prepared to cope with the pandemic which has buckled healthcare systems even in major hubs like New York City.

José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, COICA coordinator

“Our healthcare workers don’t have personal protective equipment (PPE) or equipment like ventilators,” Mr McGarrell said. “Governments need to provide the medical resources. There is no cure for Covid-19 but there are drugs which can help.”

With a lack of government action, indigenous leaders are taking matters into their own hands and coming up with creative solutions to keep people safe.

“Around the country, we see villages putting up notices, closing our communities to outsiders,” Mr McGarrell said. “Residents who return [to the villages] go through a screening process at barricades manned by health workers. You can only enter at certain times and not after 6pm.

“We want to ensure our people are protected because one person entering a community could wipe it out entirely. That’s the reality because we have a communal way of life and our communities are not large. One person coming in can expose the entire community.”

He added: “Governments should recognise our right to self-determination in locking down our communities and respect that no one should come in.”

APA is focused on getting accurate information about how to stop the spread of coronavirus to as many villages as possible, Mr McGarrell said, adding that coordinators had decided not to enter communities where they didn’t live.

“We too may be the bringers of the virus,” he said.

“We are asking people to stay home to social distance and showing how to set up wash stations. A number of our communities now have Wi-fi access and can check what’s happening online. We have been working with groups of village leaders, sending information to disseminate.

He added: “Even though Guyana is an English-speaking country, indigenous peoples have their own languages. We will not take for granted that people understand everything in English. The ministry of health made videos in some local languages, which we are very appreciative of but we would like to see more awareness material in local languages.”

Mr McGarrell said that the coronavirus could have long-term consequences for indigenous territories.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year noted that indigenous communities had a “key role” to play in understanding how to adapt to climate change with sustainable land management and increasing food security.

Brazil’s military, firefighters and civil defense members disinfect each other after cleaning in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on April 9, 2020, to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus (Photo by DOUGLAS MAGNO/AFP via Getty Images) 

“We don’t know definitively where the virus came from but with climate change, as the earth is getting warmer, we may be releasing different viruses,” he said.

“It’s important to recognise that indigenous peoples are the best guardians of the forest and if we’re going to keep the world going, then we should protect them as well.

“Since colonization, many indigenous nations have been wiped out as a result of chicken pox, smallpox, the simple flu. Our people were not immunised against these illnesses.

“Governments need to put systems in place to protect our people from diseases such as Covid-19 and recognise that we have an important role to play in fighting climate change.”

Dinamam Tuxá of the Tuxá people and Sonia Guajajara of the Guajajara people are leaders with the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), which advocates for 900,000 indigenous peoples.

Mr Tuxá said the existential threat posed by coronavirus to indigenous peoples puts more than their lives at risk.

“Coronavirus is the newest threat, and we are particularly worried about its impact on our elders and the treasure chest of knowledge that they hold,” he said.

“But this disease is only the latest threat to our peoples.

“The Brazilian government is seeking to reverse decades of progress on human rights and environmental protections. Our territories are being invaded, legally and illegally. And our people are being criminalized and murdered. And where Brazil goes, so will every forest nation.

Michael McGarrell of COICA in Patamona Nation territory, Guyana

“If the world continues to buy products produced on land stolen from us, there will be no forests left in Africa, Latin America and Indonesia.”

Mr Mirabal, a member of the Curripaco tribe from Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela, leads COICA from Quito, Ecuador.

He told The Independent that along with closing communities, indigenous groups were working together to try to provide food and gather what medicine they could to fight the coronavirus.

He said that coronavirus outbreak was the latest in a series of threats to the Amazon’s indigenous groups where the state has failed to take action, including illegal mining in their territories.

During an interview last week, he said: “The increase in extractive activities has not stopped. The issue of land invasions has claimed another murder in the last 24 hours in Brazil and also in Colombia. The number of murders have not stopped in Colombia or Brazil of indigenous leaders due to the issue of territory.

“There is a lot of land invasion and it is a consequence of the continued deforestation. The loggers keep cutting down trees and there is too much land invasion due to the drug problem, livestock and plant issues, that the state has not been able to stop.”

People wearing face masks, amid the coronavirus outbreak, commute at Tanah Abang train station, Jakarta on April 7, 2020 (Photo by ADEK BERRY/AFP via Getty Images)

The Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN) in Indonesia represents 2,332 indigenous communities, around 17 million people throughout the country.

The group called for support in transportation, food, PPE and disinfectants in a statement that highlighted the dire situation.

“Indigenous peoples are the group most threatened by the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic because they live in hard-to-reach locations and in those locations there is an extreme lack of health services,” AMAN said.

The organisation said that indigenous peoples were battling the outbreak with “talak bala” rituals (rituals to prevent misfortune or bad luck) along with individual quarantines and locking down territories.

They were also ensuring food stocks, formulating traditional medicines and growing food crops that can be harvested quickly.

Indonesia risks a spike in Covid-19 cases during the annual “returning to one’s home village” from the cities (known as mudik). Around 20m Indonesians are expected to take part during the Islamic religious holiday, Eid al-Fitr, known as Idul Fitri in the country, in late May.

President Joko Widodo has not banned people from leaving the capital Jakarta, the epicenter of coronavirus cases, the Jakarta Post reported. Indonesia has around 2,900 confirmed cases and 240 deaths from Covid-19.

The Independent has contacted government representatives for comment.

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