Conservation news

South American indigenous peoples close territories in response to COVID-19

  • Last month, indigenous leaders in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador began to restrict access of non-residents to their communities.
  • Also in March, Colombia confirmed the first two COVID-19 cases from among members of indigenous communities. The two individuals belong to the Yukpa tribe, a community of about 250 people in the north of Santander, on Venezuela’s border.
  • An indigenous leader in Peru who tested positive for COVID-19 has been the target of attacks on social networks.
  • The National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) has asked the authorities to provide support to the community, which has been forced into crowded conditions and cordoned off by the police.

The first case of a member of an indigenous community in Peru testing positive for Coronavirus was recorded late last month. The person in question, Aurelio Chino, is an indigenous leader who got sick after he traveled to the Netherlands to present a complaint against the oil company Pluspetrol.

On his return to Lima, Chino, president of the Quechua Indigenous Federation of Pastaza (FEDIQUEP), was tested by the Ministry of Health and the test came back negative. Nevertheless, he went into voluntary quarantine and asked for a second test for the virus, this time receiving a positive result.

Jorge Chávez International Airport has taken stricter preventative measures against Coronavirus. Photo: Agencia Andina.

“[He] is doing well and is not presenting any symptoms,” said Ely Tangoa, president of the Coordinating Council for the Development and Defence of Indigenous Peoples in San Martin (CODEPISAN), from Tarapoto, the town where Chino is quarantined.

However, what has most concerned the indigenous leader and indigenous organizations is the wave of abuse that he has been subjected to since the news of his condition became public. In a press release, CODEPISAN condemned what it called a “racist, malicious and criminal” campaign against the leader on social media networks. He said he is now in a situation which has put him and his family at risk.

In addition, many indigenous communities have been forced to close their territory borders and bar entry to people from outside their communities. They have also requested the support of the authorities to enforce these restrictions and provide information in indigenous languages about the risks of Coronavirus and preventative measures.

Mongabay Latam spoke with indigenous leaders and experts from four countries in the region: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

An essential journey

On March 11, indigenous leader Aurelio Chino, on behalf of the native communities of the Corrientes, Marañón, Tigre and Pastaza rivers in Loreto, Peru appeared before the OECD Contact Point of the Dutch government to denounce the contamination of their ancestral territories by oil spills in the Amazon.

The indigenous leader reported oil spill contamination to the OECD Contact Point in the Hague, the Netherlands. Source: Radio Marañón-Jaén Facebook.

The reason for his visit to the Netherlands was to demand that the oil company Pluspetrol, whose headquarters are in Amsterdam, assume responsibility for cleaning up contamination caused by oil exploration in indigenous territories.

Three days later, on March 14, he returned to Peru and followed the protocol established by the Peruvian government that all those arriving from abroad undertake quarantine.

The committee that came before the OECD consisted of six people. All of them are currently in quarantine having undergone medical examinations.

Following the announcement in a press conference in the region of San Martín concerning the indigenous leader’s state of health, social networks exploded with threatening and accusatory comments. Chino was not the only leader to be attacked.

“It was terrible. They attacked not just him, but several of us. Even I was targeted,” said CODEPISAN’s Tangoa. Messages on social networks accused the FEDIQUEP president of being irresponsible and contaminating the whole group he was traveling with. It was also claimed that he had escaped quarantine and photographs were published of the place where he was staying. There were even messages calling for him to be shot.

Indigenous peoples are demanding remediation of damage caused by oil spills in the Amazon. Photo: Feconacor.

Other messages claimed he had died and some declared that other indigenous leaders were also infected with the virus. A statement by CODEPISAM corrected the misinformation, including the claim that the leader of the Chumbakiwi community had tested positive.

The North Amazon Oil Observatory also denounced the attacks against the indigenous leader. In its statement it declared that the leader had “communicated and cooperated with the relevant authorities demonstrating the characteristic solemnity and sense of responsibility for which he is known.”

The indigenous lawyer of the Awajún people, Gil Inoach Shawit, called on state agencies to put an end to this kind of discrimination. “I have not heard any pejorative or racist language used against patient zero or any of the other patients, but as soon as an indigenous person was infected with the virus, there were people ready to stone or burn them alive,” said the former president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP).

Faced with attacks like these and the indigenous population’s vulnerability to Coronavirus, indigenous federations and organizations in various countries of the region decided to isolate themselves and announced the closure of their territories in mid-March until further notice.

The threat remains

Although many indigenous communities have decided to close their territories in response to the advance of the Coronavirus pandemic, recently in Peru there have been cases of foreign tourists ignoring the restrictions imposed by the state and federations and attempting to enter areas with a high presence of indigenous peoples. Furthermore, it has been reported that vehicles have been circulating as normal in areas which should remain closed.

Indigenous peoples are the population most vulnerable to the spread of Coronavirus. Photo: Yvette Sierra Praeli.

Zoila Merino, an indigenous women’s representative in the Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the East (ORPIO), told Mongabay Latam that on Wednesday, March 18, she received a call informing her that a boat from Brazil was heading towards the Bora de Paucarquillo community in Loreto, a town popular with tourists who arrive each year wanting to explore the Peruvian Amazon.

Community leaders appealed to the authorities of the district of Pebas and managed to stop the foreign tourists from entering the indigenous community.

Merino remains concerned about the health of indigenous peoples in Loreto. The leader says that boats are still departing from Iquitos, travelling up and down the rivers in the region, reaching their communities. “We don’t yet have any cases of an indigenous person testing positive, but we fear that this could happen,” she adds.

Loreto is one the regions that has reported the highest number of cases in Peru. As of Thursday, March 26, the statistics showed 29 people testing positive for Coronavirus.

In Peru’s central jungle, the Self-defence Committee of the Ene River Basin (CARE) released a statement reporting the same problem. In this case, they said that there was intense traffic on the highway between Satipo, San Martín de Pangoa, Valle Esmeralda and Pichari, a road which connects the regions of Junín and Cusco. Despite restrictions and road closures implemented throughout the country, passenger vehicles continue to circulate.

Indigenous peoples are the population most vulnerable to the spread of Coronavirus. Photo: Yvette Sierra Praeli.

Ashaninka leaders have cooperated with authorities and population centers to close all river routes and overland transport, but vehicles have been flouting the guidelines on the road to Pichari, in Cusco.

Irupé Cañari, CARE’s legal advisor, told Mongabay Latam that the committee’s indigenous leaders have asked the Peruvian Navy, which is in charge of the checkpoint in Puerto Anapate, to stop vehicles from entering.

“Lorries keep coming in with more passengers, showing no regard for the rules. We don’t know where they are going. The last checkpoint they go past is Puerto Anapate, where the Navy is based,” Cañari explains.

Indigenous peoples have closed roads and waterways. Photo: Yvette Sierra Praeli.

The problem is that this road passes through a high number of population centers and native communities that are at risk as a result of the movement of people from faraway cities like Huancayo, where there are currently 11 reported cases of Coronavirus.

The Peruvian Ombudsman’s Office has urged the government to guarantee the presence of police and military personnel in regions where there is a higher indigenous population, “in order to prevent this sector of the Peruvian population from being affected by the spread of the virus, due to their extreme vulnerability.”

In a statement, the institution stressed that in the region of Loreto alone there are approximately 1,203 communities that could be at risk of infection. The document also states that, according to the 2017 census, out of every ten indigenous communities in Peru, fewer than four have access to a health centre in their territory, a situation which places indigenous peoples at even greater risk.

Closed territories

In Peru, the Awajún and Wampis peoples were the first to close their borders. Following suit, communities from the Amazon regions are prohibiting the entry of outsiders to avoid contact with the virus.

Although there have not yet been any cases recorded among the Awajún and Wampis, “They are concerned that the virus could enter their territories as a result of the frequent journeys made between Peru and Ecuador,” explained international NGO Amazon Watch in a statement.

Indigenous peoples in Ecuador have closed their territories. Photo: Mongabay Archive.

The region of Ucayali in Peru faces a greater likelihood of exposure due to it being an area that is popular with tourists, Amazon Watch adds.

AIDESEP also published a statement in which it demanded that businesses adhere to the quarantine and prohibit the movement of personnel and traffic through communities.

The Peruvian Ministry of Culture said that it had coordinated with the Ministry of Health to implement health and safety protocol and provide basic care to indigenous peoples at the stage of initial contact from the Kugapakori Nahua Nanti Territorial Reserve (RTKNN) and Manu National Park.

It also said that it was working with the Peruvian Service for Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP) to suspend activities including research, tourism and patrols, among others, in natural protected areas where there are indigenous peoples in isolation or initial contact.

In Bolivia, Alex Villca, indigenous leader of the National Coordinating Council of Indigenous Peoples for the Defence of Territories and Protected Areas (CONTIOCAP), said in an interview with Mongabay Latam that they are worried about indigenous peoples who live in the protected areas. While the state recently declared the closure of 22 natural areas in Bolivia, there is still some concern. The leader says that the government needs to provide medical teams to look after these vulnerable communities.

San José de Uchupiamonas, in Madidi National Park, in Bolivia. Photo: Formentí.

“There haven’t yet been any cases reported among the indigenous population, but we are asking for medical brigades who understand and can help civil society in different languages,” Villca explains.

The indigenous leader of CONTIOCAP also said that they had restricted access to indigenous territories before the government started taking preventive measures. “Some representatives had plans to visit Colombia, the United States and Germany, but these trips were cancelled to avoid exposure to the virus,” he added.

In Bolivia, 20 people have currently tested positive for Coronavirus and a nationwide quarantine has been in force since Monday, March 23.

Andrés Tapia, communications leader of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE), draws attention to the lack of information about the virus in native languages.

The Waorani people have closed their borders. Photo by Valeria Sorgato.

Tapia says that indigenous communities in Ecuador are exercising strict control so that nobody enters their territory. The indigenous movement, headed by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador and CONFENIAE, has blocked transport in all indigenous territories.

“Many indigenous communities are located in border areas and so air access has also been restricted. River and overland routes are being subject to surveillance and control by communities,” Tapia explains.

Despite the restrictions, there have been reports of illegal loggers entering Waorani territory, and other ongoing issues, according to the most recent statement from Amazon Watch.

Robinson López, climate change and biodiversity coordinator of the Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin, said in an interview with Mongabay Latam that in Colombia the Governor of Putumayo and the 13 municipalities of this department have adopted the guidelines established by Duque’s government, which has established a quarantine from March 24 to April 13.

Indigenous communities in Colombia have also decided to restrict access. Photo: SINCHI Institute.

López explained that indigenous peoples had banned outsiders from entering their territories indefinitely. “Indigenous police have not yet reported any incidents of foreigners or tourists attempting to enter their territories in the Amazon,” said Lopez.

“Many communities are exercising their autonomy to look after themselves, not leave their territory and protect it using indigenous police and other mechanisms of protection,” explained Aida Quilcue, ONIC’s advisor on peace and human rights.

Quilcue also referred to the implementation of an internal monitoring system to follow the situation in the communities, not just because of the pandemic, but because of the other problems they face.

Banner image: The San Fernando indigenous community in Iquitos, Perú. Photo: Yvette Sierra Praeli.

A Spanish version of this article was published by Mongabay Latam on March 26.