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How Indigenous Groups in the Amazon Are Fighting Back Against Covid-19

From legal battles to traditional medicine, Indigenous groups are standing up to a disease that has stolen their elders and hurt their communities.

Members of the Kayapó tribe in the Brazilian Amazon on August 17, 2020. Indigenous groups  have been organizing to protect their communities from Covid-19. (Photo by Ernesto Carriço/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Members of the Kayapó tribe in the Brazilian Amazon on August 17, 2020. Indigenous groups have been organizing to protect their communities from Covid-19. (Photo by Ernesto Carriço/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As Covid-19 gained ever-firmer footing in South America, there’s no question that the Amazon’s Indigenous people were particularly hard-hit.

Outsiders such as loggers, miners, and even health care workers brought the disease into remote communities, sources said. Indigenous people living in urban settings, isolated from their communities, often found themselves unable to make ends meet.

Many groups lost disproportionate numbers of their elders – and with them, vital ancestral knowledge and traditions, according to organizations working directly with Indigenous groups.

And yet, from the beginning, when Covid-19 first reared its head, Indigenous people took action to safeguard themselves and their communities, fight for legal protection, and treat the disease when it appeared among them.

“Indigenous people have been hit badly by coronavirus, worse than anyone else. And at the same time, they have stepped up as no one else [has],” said Margarita Mora, managing director of partnerships at the nonprofit group Nia Tero, which works closely with Indigenous communities.

“People tend to see them as hapless victims and passive, but they’ve been very active [during the pandemic], as they always have been,” said Glenn Shepard, an anthropologist at Brazil’s Emilio Goeldi Museum who studies and works closely with Indigenous groups in the country. “They’ve never really left it up to someone else to take care of themselves, or they’d be gone.”

An “invisible enemy”

Although Indigenous groups in the Amazon have been disproportionately affected by the flu and other epidemics, in some respects, Covid-19 has meant a learning curve, said Rayanne Cristine Máximo França, a nurse, activist, and member of the Baré region of the Rio Negro Basin who studies the impacts of development on Indigenous groups.

“For many years, the Indigenous people had enemies, the prospectors, racism, the state, and others, but we have learned to face these enemies,” she wrote in an email in Portuguese. “I call Covid-19 an “invisible enemy.”

The immunological history of many Indigenous communities is different from that of the general population, a fact that França said has played a role in their vulnerability to past pandemics. However, when it comes to Covid-19, she said that social vulnerabilities – in particular, a lack of access to health services – has also played a major role.

Oscar Daza Gutierrez, human rights coordinator for the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC) saw the situation similarly.

“We are Indigenous peoples who are used to different living conditions, and perhaps in many circumstances we do not have the same resistance as the rest of society may have,” he wrote in Spanish. However, “in general, in the Amazon there is a lack of infrastructure and different factors that, if they existed, would improve the living conditions of us as Indigenous peoples.”

In particular, sources said, some Indigenous communities lack access to reliable, well-equipped primary care, and more sophisticated facilities are sometimes a plane ride away, França said.

Fighting back

Indigenous groups in several South American countries, angry with what they see as government inaction and lack of protection, have led protests and even taken legal action.

Perhaps most famously, Indigenous groups, in a case presented by the Indigenous lawyer Luiz Eloy Terena, accused the government of Brazil of failing to uphold its duty to protect them from Covid-19. In August, the country’s supreme court ruled in their favor.

In addition, groups like the Federation of Indian Organizations of the Rio Negro (FOIRN), which represents more than 20 groups in a massive region, began preparations for Covid-19 before the virus had made inroads into South America, working with the military, churches, municipalities and other partners to prepare for the virus, Mora said.

“They closed movement of people out of indigenous territories,” she said, in a move intended to slow the virus’s spread into the area.

Even on a smaller scale, many indigenous groups took steps to isolate themselves and prevent people who might have the disease from entering their communities. Mora described members of the Wayana people in Suriname closing small local airports and asking flight companies not to land there.

Sources also described indigenous communities spreading out for safety, drawing on a long history of dealing with infectious disease. “A lot of the families went into the forest…spreading out so the contagion would be less concentrated in the villages,” Shepard said.

Both within and between communities, Indigenous groups also spread information: how to prevent contagion and what protocols should be followed should the disease spread, Gutierrez said.

The Indigenous media group Radio Wayuri spread information about containing and preventing the disease across a number of groups, Mora said.

To effectively spread materials, Indigenous groups and individuals sometimes worked with NGOs like the Colombian group Sinergias, which developed a range of messages about Covid-19 containment, monitoring, and treatment to be dispensed to remote communities. (Direct Relief provided Sinergias with a $50,000 grant to distribute educational materials along with PPE.)

“We think it’s the best way to provide our help,” said Dr. Pablo Montoya, co-founder and director of Sinergias. “It’s much more difficult to assume that we know what they need and what they want.”

And many communities have employed traditional medicine to treat the virus. Pàtkore Kayapó, president of the Kayapó people-led Protected Forest Associaton, described through a translator how, during the early days of the pandemic, his community was highly afraid of the disease’s spread, and were concerned about illegal miners coming close to their villages and of traveling to the surrounding cities.

Health care close to Kayapó’s village is hard to come by, he said, with scarcities of both medicine and health care providers. A health problem often means travel to another village or, for more complex treatments, a nearby city.

However, Kayapó said, traditional medicine was effective at treating the disease, as was what he describes as the natural protection of the forest. “Fortunately, we won this battle using our own traditional medicine,” he said through the translator.

Although the disease itself has presented an ongoing challenge, Kayapó said it has also had indirect effects on his community, including threatening income streams such as those from handicrafts and tourism, and encouraging illegal mining activities in the forest.

Direct Relief’s role

To support Indigenous communities in their fight against Covid-19, Direct Relief is providing a $500,000 grant to Nia Tero. The grant is designed to reach approximately 14,000 Indigenous people who are most threatened by Covid-19 and most in need of health services, in 11 countries.

The services will be provided by Health Expeditionaries, a group that provides medical missions to Indigenous communities, and to the Indigenous Find for Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC).

With the grant provided, Health Expeditionaries will refurbish three of its mobile health clinics, train health workers, and procure a variety of health equipment. FILAC will distribute health kits to Indigenous families and health centers.

Nia Tero will also coordinate with dozens of tribal leaders to ensure that resources are delivered effectively and where they are most needed.

“There’s so much bad news, and so many elders that have passed, and at the same time it has been inspiring” to see Indigenous groups take action against this new threat, Mora said. “We all need to respect their self-determination and see their leadership for what it is.”

Cydney Justman contributed reporting to this story.

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