Members of the Pataxó indigenous community blocking the road to the inter-tribal Comexatiba reserve in Brazil’s state of Bahia.
Gil Inoach was a young boy when word of a measles outbreak reached Awajún villages in the northern Peruvian Amazon. “All of the parents took their children and fled, terrified, into the forest,” he recalls. “The schools were left empty.” He remembers walking for several hours with his father, a teacher, and the rest of the family to a place deep in the woods, far from the main part of the village. They built a hut and lived there for weeks, hunting game and gathering fruit and plants, until the danger was past.
That epidemic swept through Peru nearly half a century ago, but for those who survived, the memory remains vivid. With the novel coronavirus spreading across the country in recent weeks, Inoach, now a 53-year-old lawyer working on indigenous territorial rights, is watching history repeat itself. Though he is in lockdown in Lima, his brother is planting a garden a two-hour walk from the main part of the community of Sachapapa, in Peru’s Loreto region. Other families are building huts scattered through the forest.
“At the first sign [of illness], practically the whole community will flee and go to their places of refuge,” Inoach says.
Covid-19’s arrival in the Americas has prompted some indigenous villages to set up barricades to keep outsiders out, while families in other communities are retreating into the forest to avoid contagion.
Indigenous people have used the latter strategy for centuries in an effort to survive successive epidemics of smallpox, yellow fever, measles and other diseases brought to the region by Europeans. And while some still have that option, others no longer have access to sufficiently large swaths of natural lands to sustain themselves in relative isolation.
Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic underscores the importance of territory for indigenous peoples, as well as the threats they face in defending their lands. And the relationship that indigenous people have with the forest holds lessons for the rest of the world, especially in light of the virus that jumped from a wild animal to humans, experts say.
“Nature is wise and gives us messages,” says Shuar leader Tuntiak Katan of Ecuador, who is vice coordinator of the nine-country Coordinating Group of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (Coica). “With the quarantine, many animals are returning to the ocean, jaguars are appearing in places where they hadn’t been seen. It’s as if nature is expressing itself and recovering. The lesson, for us, is that we have to return home. That’s where the solution lies, where the medicine, the technology and the wisdom are. That home is damaged. We have to begin to restore it and care for it.”
The first Covid-19 case confirmed in Latin America was detected in São Paulo on Feb. 25. The disease began spreading in major cities, arriving with travelers from Asia or Europe. In places like Guayaquil, Ecuador, some of the first victims were wealthier residents who spread the infection at large social gatherings.
By the end of April, more than 175,000 cases had been reported in Latin America and the Caribbean. Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro resisted taking nationwide measures to control the spread of the virus, led the region with more than 71,000 reported cases and over 5,000 deaths. Peru was second, with more than 31,000 reported cases and over 850 deaths.
Indigenous people are extremely vulnerable to a disease like Covid-19, partly because their communal lifestyle involves multiple generations living in the same house and family members often sharing plates and eating utensils. In addition, says Ana Lucia Pontes, a medical doctor and public health specialist at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, “socio-economic disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples make the former far more susceptible to infectious diseases because, as many suffer from malnutrition and lack basic sanitation, they are more likely to be in poorer health.” Adds Pontes: “And because [many] indigenous peoples depend on nearby towns for groceries and medicines, they have a particularly hard struggle to self-isolate. Both factors mean that coronavirus could spread quickly in indigenous communities.”
At the same time, indigenous people are invisible in official figures, says Katan, the Shuar leader. By April 24, Coica member groups had reported seven deaths in Brazil, two in Ecuador and one in Colombia, but there could be more, he says. A death was also reported in Peru.
Brazil’s first Covid-19 case in an indigenous person was confirmed on April 1, but several weeks before then the Indigenous Peoples’ Liaison (APIB), Brazil’s largest indigenous association, had put Brazil’s over 900,000 Indians, grouped in 305 different tribal peoples, “on maximum alert.” APIB told indigenous people not to leave their villages except to buy essentials such as food and medicine, according to Dinamam Tuxá, an APIB executive coordinator and a member of the 3,800-member Tuxá tribe. Communities have developed their own strategies, often by having young members buy collectively and in bulk.
APIB also told communities not to allow outsiders, even from other tribal groups, into their villages, and advised members to quarantine in their villages for 14 days if they arrived after having spent time in densely populated areas. Tuxá himself was in quarantine for two weeks in March and April after returning to his village from APIB headquarters in Brasília, the capital. Members of his family, living apart from him, delivered food to him.
In Ecuador, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (Confeniae) launched an education campaign about Covid-19 in various languages, explaining safety procedures and what to do if someone shows symptoms. It also has worked with nonprofit groups and local organizations to distribute food and disinfectants.
The Mexican government translated its “Stay Home” slogan and logo into more than 60 native languages to communicate Covid-19 prevention measures through audio messages, videos and brochures. Radio and television stations with indigenous audiences also agreed to broadcast information in the languages spoken in their broadcast area, according to the National Indigenous Languages Institute (Inali).
For its part, the Guatemalan government translated its Covid-19 control messages into 21 Mayan languages. In Nebaj, Quiché, a town in the Guatemalan highlands populated by members of the Ixil community, nearly three-quarters of residents live in poverty. Many work in the sugarcane and coffee fields or depend on remittances from family members in the United States, says community leader Francisco Marroquín. The coronavirus crisis exacerbates the abandonment the community has felt for decades, he says.
“The entire population in Nebaj is in panic because of the threat posed by the coronavirus,” he says. “Economic resources and food are short. We don’t have the conditions to confront it.”
Other indigenous leaders also say official responses have fallen short. APIB published an open letter to the Brazilian government on March 20 demanding an emergency action plan to avoid the risks posed by Covid-19 to indigenous peoples as well as a contingency plan for combating disease outbreaks and epidemics in indigenous lands.
The group said the plan should include preventing the invasion of indigenous territories by land grabbers, squatters, miners, loggers and others, and providing additional funding to the indigenous health system. A follow-up letter on April 10 called for the government to provide food and medicine to indigenous people in need.
In Peru, the Interethnic Association for Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (Aidesep), an umbrella group of the country’s Amazonian indigenous organizations, filed a complaint before the United Nations. It called the government’s failure to devise a plan to protect indigenous communities against the pandemic’s “possible ethnocide because of inaction and discrimination.”
Even Brazil’s Indigenous Health Service was caught flat-footed by the pandemic, as the shelters designed to receive and coordinate care for indigenous people from rural areas refused to take Covid-19 patients, says Douglas Rodrigues, a Brazilian doctor who specializes in indigenous health care. By April, Brazil’s only major Amazonian hospital, in Manaus, was beyond capacity and hundreds of health workers had been diagnosed with Covid-19.
While most attention has been placed on rural communities, indigenous people in urban areas, such as those living in crowded neighborhoods in Manaus, are also at high risk. Those neighborhoods lack running water and sewer service, and health problems such as heart disease and diabetes—which are risk factors for Covid-19—are common.
Health officials must work with indigenous groups to draw up survival strategies, especially for communities opting for isolation, to ensure they have the means to weather the pandemic, Rodrigues says. “There’s a lot of difference between one situation and another,” he says. “It’s not possible to make a policy for the entire country.”
Indeed, the pandemic could jeopardize the survival of the remaining semi-nomadic peoples of the Amazon, many descended from groups that fled abuse and disease in the past. These people lack immunity even to common diseases like the flu or common cold. Isolated groups of them live in seven countries, though the largest concentration is in the heavily forested area along the Peruvian-Brazilian border. Many inhabit areas that have been set aside as reserves, but incursions by hunters, loggers and miners are common. Some also have a degree of contact with settled indigenous communities, which increases the risk, says Peruvian anthropologist Beatriz Huertas.
When an outbreak of flu or other illness strikes a semi-nomadic group, members sometimes leave the forest for help. Health workers can provide them vaccinations or treatment, but neither is yet available in the case of Covid-19. “People would die,” Huertas says bluntly. “There would be no way to stop it. There would be no plan for care and recovery.”
In Brazil, where the head of the office responsible for isolated indigenous people is now a former evangelical pastor, indigenous leaders and advocates worry that the government might use health care during the pandemic as a pretext for contacting isolated groups.
Univaja, the organization representing tribes inhabiting the Javari Valley Indigenous Land, where the largest number of Brazil’s semi-nomadic people live, won a court injunction in mid-April to stop an apparent plan by U.S.-based evangelical missionaries to contact an isolated group. The court ruling specifies several missionaries by name, but applies to anyone attempting to make contact.
Isolated groups are not the only ones at risk of decimation. Some Amazonian tribes are so small that even a few deaths from Covid-19 could lead to extinction, Huertas says. Because the disease is most lethal for elderly people, those groups would first lose the members who carry the memory of their culture and traditions—the fate suffered by so many tribes since the arrival of Europeans and their diseases half a millennium ago.
The first indigenous person in Brazil to die from Covid-19 was a Yanomami teenager who had been attending a school outside of his community. His death highlighted yet again the threats facing his people, whose reserve—inhabited by both settled and semi-nomadic groups—has been invaded by an estimated 25,000 wildcat gold miners.
Miners have introduced diseases in the reserve in the past, and Rodrigues and others say the virus is probably circulating in the mining camps. Deforestation by miners, loggers, farmers and ranchers is a factor in the transmission of diseases from animals to humans, and the Covid-19 pandemic underscores the importance of keeping ecosystems intact, scientists say. (See "Could a zoonotic pandemic start in Latin America?" —EcoAméricas, March 2020.)
Indigenous territories with healthy ecosystems can provide a buffer against disease, but their territory needs to be large enough to provide the resources needed for survival, Inoach says. He is working with tribes in northern Peru on legal claims to their ancestral territory, which goes well beyond the individual communities that the government has titled over the years. By creating a sort of internal zoning in their territory—areas for occupation, farming and extraction of timber and other forest products, as well as no-hunting zones where animals reproduce—his Awajún people have made it possible for families to survive in isolation during the pandemic, he says.
For other communities, however, that is nearly impossible. In Peru’s San Martín region, some Awajún villagers have rented out their share of communal lands to outsiders to plant commodity crops like cacao, says Yanua Atamain, of the community of Río Soritor, who works with communities to recover their traditional ways of growing food.
That leaves villagers with few options now, because some do not have space for gardens. Her community is struggling to find a balance between keeping outsiders, who could be carriers of the virus, away while still enabling community members to buy supplies they need in the nearest town, where Covid-19 cases have been reported.
Many indigenous groups believe that over-hunting or over-fishing—taking more than one needs for food—can cause animals to take revenge and cause illness, says Glenn Shepard, an anthropologist from the United States who is a full staff researcher at the Goeldi Museum in Belém, Brazil. (See "For him, Covid-19 crisis spotlights need for environmental ethics" —EcoAméricas, April 2020.)
“When you look at it from the perspective of the coronavirus, you see some ecological and even scientific wisdom there: when you disrupt the balance, there are consequences,” Shepard says. “All of us are involved in these mercantile relationships with nature that are destroying the harmony.”
For Rodrigues, indigenous groups that are turning to their territories to sustain them through the pandemic offer a lesson to the non-indigenous world in their way of living.
“For me, that’s the first thing we need to think about—living with less, with what you need,” he says. “There’s no reason for a great accumulation of things. That is a characteristic of indigenous peoples, which is not poverty. It is wisdom.”
- Barbara Fraser
- (EcoAméricas correspondents Mercedes Alvaro, Michael Kepp, Mike McDonald and Adam Williams provided reporting for this article.)
In the index: Indigenous people who still have access to large tracts of land for hunting and gathering are better able to go into isolation during disease outbreaks. (Photo by Barbara Fraser)