Indigenous peoples of South America face 'genocide' as coronavirus pandemic exposes historic inequalities

Illegal incursions into their territories have continued during the pandemic.

June 30, 2020, 5:04 AM

Berlin Diques oversees the well-being of some of the most vulnerable peoples in the world. As a regional president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), he supervises three regions of remote Amazonia, at the Peruvian borders of Colombia and Brazil, territories that are home to 15 different indigenous groups.

Managing their well-being during the pandemic, he says, is harder than ever.

“We are in danger of extinction,” he told ABC News. “If one of us got the virus in a remote community and starts the contagion it will be the death of us . . . it will be a genocide. This is my biggest fear.”

Cases of the coronavirus across South America are continuing to rise at a sharp rate. Brazil has over 1.3 million confirmed cases, and Peru and Colombia, two countries at Brazil's border with the Amazon, have at least 279,000 and 91,000 cases respectively, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Diques fears that in the context of rising cases in mainstream Latin American society, the interests of indigenous people will be sidelined.

Doctors, lawyers and NGOs representing the interest of indigenous peoples in the region have told ABC News they are increasingly concerned about the potential for COVID-19 to wreak havoc amongst the indigenous peoples in the Amazon and beyond. A lack of political will to address their vulnerabilities, the continuation of illegal mining and logging activities, and years of erosion of their rights even before the pandemic are, they say, “extremely worrying.”

“This is a longtime national narrative,” Diques said. “This is the cruel reality of Amazonia. In our villages, if one of us got contaminated it can turn quickly into a drama.”

PHOTO: Krimej indigenous Chief Kadjyre Kayapo, of the Kayapo indigenous community, looks out at a path created by loggers on the border between the Biological Reserve Serra do Cachimbo, front, and Menkragnotire indigenous lands, in Brazil, Aug. 31, 2019.
Krimej indigenous Chief Kadjyre Kayapo, of the Kayapo indigenous community, looks out at a path created by loggers on the border between the Biological Reserve Serra do Cachimbo, front, and Menkragnotire indigenous lands, in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, Aug. 31, 2019.
Leo Correa/AP, FILE

Vulnerability at borders

Cities at the border between Peru, Brazil and Colombia are now experiencing rising cases of coronavirus. Hundreds of indigenous tribes live in the forests at the border, and the fear now is that people in the border cities, across these three countries, many of whom the indigenous groups rely on for food and medical care, could bring the virus with them. Then, once the virus is brought into the Amazon, it can spread very easily, advocates say.

"The minute the coronavirus reaches an indigenous community it is likely that it will spread very quickly, because in many cases people have quite communal ways of life,” Sarah Shenker, a senior campaigner at the indigenous rights NGO Survival International, told ABC News.

In some cases, that fear is already becoming a reality, particularly in Brazil, which just reached the grim milestone of 50,000 COVID-related deaths, making it the third worst hit country in the world, after the U.S. and the U.K.

Colombia is on a similarly steep path when it comes to cases of the coronavirus. Lockdown measures in the country have been extended to July 15.

Yet, when it comes to indigenous cases, accurate data regarding the spread of COVID-19 in the Amazon is nearly impossible to come by, according to Eve Bratman, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Franklin & Marshall College and author of "Governing the Rainforest: Sustainable Development Politics in the Brazilian Amazon."

The lack of testing and inadequate medical provisions pre-dates the pandemic and has "been consistent [with] the way they have been constantly ostracized from society," she said.

"Governments are using this virus very opportunistically to let these populations suffer," she told ABC News. "In the case of Brazil, [the] Bolsonaro government is not treating them as citizens."

But there are already instances where the coronavirus appears to have spread widely amongst indigenous groups.

In the area designated for the Pacacuro in Peru, for example, 600 people with symptoms of COVID have been registered out of 800 residents, according to local media. Forty-six percent of the Brazilian Amazon's Arara people—who just just recently came into contact with people outside their tribe—have been infected by the virus, according to Survival, and experts fear the rates of infection could be even higher.

Tatjig, Iogo and Typu Arara. Iogo, the oldest woman of the community, sits at the center.
Leila Burger/Survival

The problem of not treating indigenous people as citizens is particularly acute in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has been accused of waging war against indigenous groups since he took office in January 2019.

But it's not only Brazil, and indigenous populations across the continent have reported a lack of support during the pandemic.

For example, Luis Munoz, a leader of the Parroquia people at Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, told ABC News that his tribe is not receiving any support from the central government. And a doctor who works with the Parroquia told ABC News that he feels he is “abandoning them every time” he leaves after traveling on a government boat to treat them.

Mining and oil extraction continues

There is little evidence of international cooperation, such as a cross-border strategy, to help indigenous communities, particularly as national governments struggle to contain the virus in mainstream society.

According to Diques, the Peruvian government “is not paying attention to the most vulnerable population,” and accurate statistics on the rates of infection are impossible to come by without help from the central government. “But this is not surprising, we are historically fighting the government, they believed that Amazonian people are excluded from society,” he said. “They believe we are not part of Peru.”

According to COIAB, a Brazilian indigenous rights organization, the death rates amongst indigenous people who have contracted COVID-19 is higher than the general population. Although diseases from mainstream society pose a greater threat to indigenous peoples because of lower rates of immunity, there is so far no evidence that suggests the higher COVID death rate can be put down to genetic vulnerability, according to Shenker.

There are several reasons why indigenous peoples are “more vulnerable” to the pandemic, she said, most of which can be attributed to social and economic factors and age-old inequalities: high rates of poverty, racism in healthcare systems, and the continuation of illegal logging and mining in their lands, she said.

"They are already the most vulnerable people on the planet, even without a pandemic, and any illegal invasions in their territory could wipe out whole peoples,” she told ABC News. "We know that indigenous peoples in many cases suffer from underlying health conditions, often as the result of forced contact by some indigenous societies in recent decades."

PHOTO: An undated image shows an aerial view of indigenous people gathered by a riverbank in the Peruvian Amazon.
An undated image shows an aerial view of indigenous people gathered by a riverbank in the Peruvian Amazon, where communities with little contact with the outside world are calling for tougher legislation to keep out oil, logging and mining companies.
AIDESEP via Reuters

Many indigenous groups face a double problem – that contact with mainstream society is essential as they rely on government healthcare, handouts and employment to feed their families, and that contact can bring potentially devastating consequences, Shenker said.

"Having been chucked off their ancestral land, [they] are living in overcrowded reserves or in camps on the sides of main roads, where they suffer from really high rates of malnutrition and disease, and one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In those sorts of situations it's impossible to self-isolate, because they rely on outside sources for food, for example."

Yet the problem of illegal mining and logging, which so often brings an existential threat to indigenous populations, regardless of the pandemic, has continued largely unabated, she said. In the Yanomani Indigenous territory on the Brazil-Venezuela border, the Yanomani people have launched a campaign to expel 20,000 gold miners, who they say have continued to operate illegally in the region despite the pandemic. So far, three Yanomani have died of COVID-19.

The same problem has played out at the Peruvian border with Ecuador. The Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation (GTANW), which represents 85 Wampis communities, has filed a criminal complaint against the general manager of GeoPark, a Chilean petroleum company, for endangering the Wampis, as oil operations have continued without the testing of workers during the pandemic, they said.

And in Peru, Lizardo Cauper Pezo the president of AIDESEP and a member of the Shipbo indigenous people, has called for “immediate concrete action to support our Indigenous communities, including that the Peruvian government stop all extractive industries in our territories and provide immediate public health resources,” in a statement seen by ABC News.

"It looks as though the virus has encouraged even more invasions because the invaders think that there's less policing going on," Shenker said. "We receive messages nearly every day from different indigenous people across the country telling us about the invaders . . . loggers, miners and others."

While the extraction of natural resources has continued, despite the national economies of South America going into lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Diques fears that the situation could further deteriorate as the Peruvian government seeks to open up its economy, albeit gradually, again.

“This is truly destroying the woods, our forest,” he told ABC News. “Of course, without any consent from Indigenous communities. If one worker, coming from minerals extraction, for example, got the coronavirus, he can give it to all of us.”