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Indigenous Ashaninka launch fundraiser to help Amazon neighbors amid pandemic

  • In early July, the Ashaninka indigenous people launched a fundraising campaign to encourage food production in communities living near the Kampa do Rio Amônia Indigenous Territory, in the Brazilian state of Acre.
  • The “Ashaninka for the Peoples of the Forest” campaign plans to raise 1 million reais (about $200,000) to distribute food, farming tools and fishing gear to 1,800 local families, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
  • There have been no reports of any Ashaninka being infected with COVID-19 to date; isolated by barriers they set up in the river leading to their village, they’re surviving on their traditional farming techniques.
  • Nearby communities, however, depend on food aid and lack medical care in highly complex cases, prompting the Ashaninka to launch the fundraising campaign out of a sense of duty.

“We can live three, four, five years in the forest, in our territory, until the pandemic is over, because we prepared ourselves for this,” says Francisco Piyãko, a leader of the Ashaninka Indigenous group in Brazil’s Acre state. “But if our neighbors are not well, we won’t be.”

Driven by this philosophy, the Ashaninka launched a fundraising campaign in early July to encourage food production in communities near the Kampa do Rio Amônia Indigenous Territory in Acre.

The “Ashaninka for the Peoples of the Forest” campaign plans to raise 1 million reais (nearly $200,000) to distribute food, farming tools and fishing gear to 1,800 local families, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. It has no deadline: it will end when the pandemic ends.

“We know very clearly that this disease will not end in a month or two because they are still discussing vaccines and treatment,” Francisco Piyãko says. “What we want is for these families to get stronger and find a way to not depend on food aid because that won’t do it. We have to take advantage of this crisis and think that we’ll have a stock of food in our plantations in the future. We are concerned with a long-term process.”

In addition to increasing their neighbors’ food security, the Ashaninka also want to prevent people from going to Marechal Thaumaturgo, the nearest town, where 150 of the population of 18,000 have been infected by the new coronavirus. Health care facilities are poor in the region, with no medium- or high-complexity services available. For that, people would have to travel to the state capital, Rio Branco, by boat or small aircraft.

Ashaninka women peel manioc in their village of Apiwtxa to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the demarcation of the Kampa do Rio Amônia Indigenous Territory in 2017. Image by Maria Fernanda Ribeiro.

Lockdown on the river

According to the Articulation of Brazilian Indigenous Peoples (APIB), 529 Indigenous members have died of COVID-19 since Brazil reported its first death on March 19. Seventeen of those deaths occurred in the state of Acre. Historically susceptible to infectious diseases, forest peoples are considered high-risk groups.

About 1,000 Ashaninka have self-isolated in the village of Apiwtxa on the banks of the Amônia River. No COVID-19 infections have been reported there, and none will ever be if it’s up to the community, says Moisés Piyãko, Francisco’s brother. He says they’ve created their own lockdown system with barriers on the river to prevent outsiders from entering.

The Ashaninka are prepared to remain there indefinitely, Moisés Piyãko says, living only on food produced by the community — the result of decades of planning for autonomy since the territory was officially confirmed as Indigenous land in 1992.

When the pandemic arrived in Brazil, the first reaction of the Ashaninka from Apiwtxa was to take refuge in the forest to hide from the virus. When they realized they could stay free of the disease by adopting social isolation measures, they returned to their homes and their community life. Then they realized that while they were in isolation, people from neighboring communities were still circulating in search of food, work or emergency aid. That’s when they had the idea for the campaign.

“We’re safe, but we never thought that the whole world could die and we’d be left,” Moisés Piyãko says. “Nobody is so selfish to say that we are going to take care of ourselves and nobody else. We have responsibilities, we have a duty, and that is what we are doing with this campaign. We all feel this pain and we are trying to protect those inside the forest. This campaign focuses on the suffering that everyone has already undergone.”

Ashaninka leader Moisés Piyãko. Image by Maria Fernanda Ribeiro.

Forest Alliance

This alliance between the Ashaninka and the surrounding communities isn’t new. According to the Piyãko brothers, the campaign is the continuation of a history of joint effort between Indigenous peoples living in that part of the Amazon, including the Kuntanawa, the Huni Kuin (also known as the Kaxinawá), the Jaminawa, and the Apolima-Arara.

One of the previous examples is the Alto Juruá project, selected in 2015 by the Amazon Fund to promote agroforestry management and production in the Kampa do Rio Amônia Indigenous Territory and in neighboring communities as a sustainable economic alternative to deforestation.

The project saw the Ashaninka do Rio Amônia  Association sign a $1.3 million agreement with Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES). It was the first contract drawn up by an Indigenous group with no intermediation from state agencies or NGOs. About 2,500 people have benefited from the project, including members of the Huni Kuin and families working in extractive activities.

The Ashaninka won a U.N. award for the project in 2017. Granted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Equator Prize included the Alto Juruá project among the world’s 15 best sustainable solution initiatives in that year.

This latest campaign, Ashaninka for the Peoples of the Forest, “is a continuity project,” says Francisco Piyãko. “We cannot expect anything different from our Ashaninka people. Our greatest achievement was to turn our enemies into allies, and we’ll make the world an ally as well. We’ll face any challenge to the region with this spirit based on sharing, on being allies for coping, whether it comes from mining, logging, or the coronavirus.”

Read also: $3 million and an official apology: Brazil’s Ashaninka get unprecedented compensation for deforestation on their land

Banner image of Ashaninka children in the village of Apiwtxa in Acre state, Brazil, by Maria Fernanda Ribeiro.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on July 9, 2020.