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Coronavirus caused by ‘unbalancing’ of nature: Q&A with Indigenous leader Levi Sucre Romero

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has been disproportionately hard on Indigenous communities around the world, most of which suffered even before the pandemic from lack of access to health care and from the destruction of their natural ecosystems.
  • Levi Sucre Romero, a leader of the Bribri Indigenous group in Costa Rica, says the pandemic is one of many consequences of the mismanagement of natural resources.
  • With government aid largely lacking, Indigenous communities are pulling through the crisis in the ways that they know best, Romero says, including a return to traditional means of sustainable production and sharing.
  • He calls for governments to allow more room for Indigenous knowledge in policies affecting natural resource management, and for greater solidarity between Indigenous communities globally in their shared struggle.

While COVID-19 caught most of the world off guard, Indigenous environmental leader Levi Sucre Romero says he foresaw the potential for a pandemic all along.

“There is an understanding with Indigenous peoples that this virus and others are a product of wrong management of natural resources in the world,” says Romero, the coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB), an alliance of indigenous organizations in Central America that advocates for the proper management of local forests.

Romero is an Indigenous leader representing the Bribri peoples of Costa Rica. The Bribri live in Talamanca canton, Limón province, in the southeast of the country, and are one of only two tribes in Costa Rica that never had contact with the Spanish.

Levi Sucre Romero, an Indigenous environmental leader of the Bribri people, photographed in his community in Talamanca, Costa Rica. Image courtesy of Joel Redman/If Not Us Then Who?

According to Romero, COVID-19 has harmed the Bribri community and other Indigenous communities in many ways. He says Indigenous communities in the region lack access to quality health care, information in their local languages, and support from the governments that have mostly focused their COVID-19 relief efforts on cities.

Romero says he’s proud that his local communities are nevertheless quickly adapting to a post-pandemic world, even with minimal help from the outside world. The Indigenous communities of Costa Rica are organizing their own food delivery systems and reestablishing their food sovereignty, in preparation for a catastrophic, post-pandemic economy.

“We see that national economies will be broken after this,” Romero says. “We fear that there will be famine.”

In an interview with Mongabay, Romero talks about how his people are coping with the pandemic and sustainably managing their forests. He also says governments must include Indigenous knowledge to better conserve the planet — and prevent future pandemics.

Romero spoke in Spanish through a translator; the interview has been edited for clarity.


Mongabay: Where did you grow up? Can you give me historical and cultural background about the Bribri people?

Levi Sucre Romero: The Cabécar and Bribri indigenous peoples are located in the South Caribbean, or South Atlantic part of Costa Rica. These are the two Indigenous peoples in the country that are recognized to be the only ones that the Spanish colonizers did not get to. The Cabécar and the Bribri Indigenous peoples also share a cosmogonic base, a sort of library of the way in which we understand the world.

The community I was born in is called Sepecue, and when I was born there, you had to either walk two to three days to get there from a road, or go in a boat in a day through the rivers.

Right now, my community is one hour in a boat ride or a two- to three-hour walk from a road. We are located in the buffer zone of La Amistad International Park, which translates to “The Friendship.” These are lands that we believe to be of historical and cultural use of our peoples, but that the government at some point segregated or took from us.

How did you get involved with Indigenous rights and activism? How did you get involved in the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB) specifically?

Back then, and even now, our communities survived because of the people in the community organizing and from our fathers organizing. So, when I finished school, I started getting involved in this community organizational processes and started also going to exchanges with other communities. That’s how I started becoming a leader in the territory.

The first things we worked on were defense of the land, production of organic cocoa, and conservation of the forests. And we started doing those things so well that we started gaining visibility at the national level.

So, then I started participating in Central American-level exchanges, and I started getting involved in other territories and Indigenous peoples. And that’s how I started getting involved with the Mesoamerican movement.

How badly is coronavirus impacting Indigenous groups in Mesoamerica?

I think I can classify the impact that coronavirus is having in three aspects: the medical aspect, the cultural aspect, and the psychological aspect.

On the first level, the health level, it has made a great impact in general because governments have concentrated their response in the cities. This means they haven’t prioritized Indigenous territories, which already have little access to health systems.

The second level, the cultural level, we have been informed that some of the most vulnerable people are elders; in our communities, the elders are the ones who keep the knowledge and direct the peoples. So, there is a lot of uncertainty about that, and that’s why we are taking very specific actions to make sure we protect them and we protect that knowledge.

The third level, the psychological level, we’ve seen an explosion of information coming from social networks and TV and communications, media in general. And so we have so much information, and it’s also kind of disinformation. It is so much, and it is so hard to understand that there is frustration and even fear, so that’s why we have insisted so much on the importance of having this information in our Indigenous languages. This is why at AMPB we have been working on exchanging experiences on the Mesoamerican level, so we can also go to authorities with proposals on how to deal with this. And that’s why we have helped to also organize direct help to the communities and information in the Indigenous languages.

Also, there is an understanding with Indigenous peoples that this virus and others are a product of wrong management of natural resources in the world. We have been destroying ecosystems and this is not the only indicator. We also have, for example, as another indicator other animals and insects that are threatening the environment and crops. This is so much so that the Cabécar peoples have already identified a cultural concept that explains this: It’s called Ñá, and it is a concept about how invisible forces caused by this disruption equilibrium can cause this sort of thing.

How are Indigenous communities in Mesoamerica handling this pandemic?

They’re managing the pandemic in different ways because it depends on how each country is also managing the pandemic. So, some of the basic or general measures that communities have taken are tending to their communities, demanding that we have information in our languages from authorities, working to get help either from NGOs or from other sources like the governments, making sure help reaches the most vulnerable families, and the last point, preparing for the impacts from after the pandemic.

There is an issue that caught Indigenous peoples’ attention, and they hope it caught the world’s attention — that we need to go back to the land, to producing our food in the land, to food sovereignty, and to a system that is not a predator of natural resources and gives us food in a sustainable way. We see that national economies will be broken after this. We fear that there will be famine, so we are returning to our traditional knowledge starting now to make sure we have food sovereignty. An example of this is what we’re doing in Costa Rica with the Indigenous estanco, which is the system of distributing these foods between the families of the territory.

A system created by Cabécar women, the Indigenous estanco or virtual produce exchange, combines new technologies and ancestral farming practices to deliver food to the Bribri and Cabécar communities during COVID-19. Image courtesy of RIBCA.

Is there a link between deforestation and the rise of coronavirus?

I believe there is a link in three ways: the first one is that the reduction system that governments call “development” causes a lot of destruction and are unbalancing the ecosystems in the environment.

The second is that this unbalance is causing animals and insects to interact with humans in ways they didn’t before, because they can’t find suitable habitat.

The third one is that species are spreading out so there is really no biological control, and they are causing these pandemics. This is also due to an excessive use of chemical products. This is making species more resistant, which makes it harder to combat them, and then it becomes harder to have this biological control.

How bad is the environmental destruction in Mesoamerica currently, especially with deforestation?

We see two elements that drive deforestation in Mesoamerica. The first is the advancement of the agricultural frontier, because people need ways to subsist, and there hasn’t been a real control of how they do so in communities or in this advancement of the agricultural frontier.

The second is the narco activities. Narcos are destroying forests in order to have cattle, so they can put their investments there. It’s related to money-laundering. And this is adding to a very weak capacity from governments to take care of forests as well as weak development policies for communities.

This is why at AMPB we have been developing community experiences to show how communities are being successful in managing forests and why they are key in protecting the last standing forests of Central America and Mexico. An example of this is our “Five Great Forests of Mesoamerica” initiative.

How do your people protect the forest? What challenges do they face in doing so?

The first way we protect forests is that, because they provide us with our way of living, we protect them as if they are ourselves. We even go to the extent of helping the governments in ways that should be their responsibility. For example, we help the government in taking care of the international parks. One of the main challenges is legal security for the territory — we have very weak written legislation in our countries. What makes it even weaker is that many times it depends on houses of congress, and many times these houses of congress have interests in the way our lands are used.

A big threat we also see is that we believe that governments, in an aim to reactivate their economies post-pandemic, will start pushing projects that will be fatal for Indigenous peoples’ rights such as monocrops, petroleum and oil exploitation, and gas. We see that starting to happen because we know of several congresspeople that have projects doing so. It will be fatal for Indigenous peoples and forests.

How do your people’s cultural beliefs influence how they view the management of land and resources?

The cultural visions of the Bribri and Cabécar peoples have a cosmogonic base that says that all natural resources have an “owner,” so this means that you can’t abuse them without consequences. So, it is under this vision of respect for the life of human beings and natural resources that we make rational use of these resources, so we don’t damage them.

A struggle we’ve had is to take this concept to legislation in our countries, to the laws of our country of the traditional use of natural resources and our forests, but it has been quite a fight. It’s been hard to get it there.

AMPB clashes with companies and groups that want to destroy the forest. Has AMPB also clashed with international conservation groups that want to conserve the local forest, but fail to include the voices of local Indigenous peoples?

We have clashed especially with groups that have an “ultra-conservationist” view that separates completely humans and natural resources. For thousands and thousands of years, humans and forests have lived together. We know it is not possible to protect forests without people, especially in Mesoamerica. We know that the only way to protect forests is for people to protect forests and for forests to give them their livelihood. This is an ancestral practice.

Costa Rica has a reputation of being one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the world, especially with its recent reforestation efforts. What are your thoughts on the Costa Rican government’s environmental protection efforts?

I believe that the success Costa Rica has had in its resource management comes from 30 to 40 years ago when the country decided to position itself in relation to ecological sustainable tourism. This meant that the government made the decision to be a country with strong sustainable tourism, and it led to three main actions. The first was to lead programs that are for reforestation with people. The second is to open a dialogue with civil society and companies, and this also included Indigenous peoples. And the third was to facilitate or make sure that there was access for tourists to these places for ecological tourism.

Well now, 40 years later, we have a consolidated system for payment of environmental services. It has been consolidated with producers, with companies, and with Indigenous peoples, and it is very strong. We still have sectors that want to destroy forest — as we have always had — and that want to change these policies. But fortunately, we also have a very strong civil society participating in and sustaining this vision.

There is evidence that China is pushing illegal wildlife trafficking in the region, and that the wildlife trade is becoming an increasing public health concern due to the rise of coronavirus. Have you seen a rise in wildlife trade in your region since the start of the pandemic?

So, what we saw was that trafficking increased before the pandemic. Also, we saw an increase of the trafficking of ancestral items, cultural items, from our peoples. I can’t say if it has increased during the time of the pandemic, because the news doesn’t really talk about this, but we know it definitely increased before.

Environmental defenders around the world are at increasing risk of violence and killings from opposing groups. Have you seen a rising trend in threats or killings of environmental defenders in Costa Rica?

We have seen a rise, not just in Costa Rica, but in all of Mesoamerica. There has been a rise, not just in murders, but also in violence against leaders. This so much so that in Costa Rica, after almost 200 years, we see Indigenous leaders dying for defending their lands. We’ve had two murders of Indigenous leaders in the past year, and we do see that it’s becoming stronger, that dispute for lands.

I’ll use a phrase that one of my colleagues from AMPB used in Mexico, which is that Indigenous local leaders are “under fire.” We are in an open declared war, and they are really pointing at us. He said this in response to the last Global Witness report.

From an Indigenous perspective, what is the best course of action to protect forests and to prevent another pandemic in the future?

So we have really insisted worldwide that government policies, as well as global policies regarding climate change, need to include Indigenous knowledge. We have said this in COPs [U.N. climate change summits] and around the world, and we see that it has even advanced, but not that much.

The other aspect is that, I believe organizations of Indigenous peoples need to be stronger, even more so now that we have these technological and global communications and tools. We need to have a common front.

Then the third is that we need to be proposition-based as to how we wish our own development to be, and make sure we have a say in government policies, as well as cooperation, so these support our rights and our ways of living.

How can readers far away help protect Mesoamerica’s forests and peoples?

The first thing they need to do is look around them and see what forests they have near them and protect them. They need to change habits and also connect to networks, such as the global alliance [] that we are a part of with Indonesia, Brazil, and Amazonia, and contact people like you that are also helping protect the forest and are leading people in how to help.

So I wish governments from around the world would understand the message that COVID-19 is sending us and reorient their policies, especially on climate change, to include what we understand as development in their environmental and economic policies.