Indigenous Amazonian responses to COVID-19

I recently submitted an application for a small amount of money for a project with a potentially large impact. Having worked with Kichwa communities, federations and individual yachaks (shamans) in the Upper Napo since 2005 and partcipated in their struggles for protection, restoration and revalorisation of traditional knowledge and medicinal practices, the current resurgence of interest in the ways of old and the healing powers of the forest is exciting. Even if it is generated by the pandemic.

The title of the proposed project is: Indigenous Amazonian responses to COVID-19: resurgence of ancestral medicine for cultural survival amongst the Napo Runa

Day is done on the Napo River

Abstract: The current pandemic intensifies converging humanitarian and environmental crises in the Amazon, making indigenous peoples more vulnerable. However, as preliminary interviews have strongly indicated, it has also generated renewed interest in ancestral knowledge, as trust in authorities and access to public health care is low. Using grounded theory combined with innovative participatory methods and, in part, virtual ethnography, this project critically analyses responses of the Napo Runa population of the Ecuadorian Amazon to COVID-19. The focus is on the resurgent use of medicinal plants and traditional knowledge, prophylactically and as treatment, in order to understand and consolidate this promising cultural revival. The wider aim is to empower the Napo Runa and indigenous people elsewhere, who as guardians of the environment actively resisting deforestation and resource extraction are crucial agents in the urgent struggle against global heating and future spillover of animal-borne diseases to humans.

Here’s a few more paragraphs explaining the background and context: The COVID-19 pandemic threatens indigenous peoples in multiple ways. It amplifies “pre-existing colonial conditions” (Curley, 2020), i.e. structures of inequity resulting from colonisation, deforestation, resource extraction and historical disinvestment in public health services (Johns, 2020), thus aggravating infection rates in indigenous territories with pre-existing disease clusters. The threat is compounded by widespread contamination of indigenous territories, increasing lack of proper nutrition due to poverty, toxic effects of extractive industries and institutionalised racism of modern states – which makes it harder to access healthcare, good education, and jobs. Amazonians are more vulnerable to infectious diseases not because of their ethnicity or genetics, but because vulnerability to contagion is a social condition.

Moreover, the pandemic lockdown carries its own risks in terms of isolation and food insecurity. Both legal and illegal resource extraction continue despite the lockdown, with the latter expanding operations and reach in the absence of an active resistance, disregarding travel restrictions and potentially increasing the spread of infection, while undermining the integrity of indigenous territories at an accelerated pace. The already complex humanitarian crises in the Amazon have intensified through the COVID-19 pandemic, and signal an urgent need for understanding how the virus is both hindering and enabling indigenous ‘survivance’ – vital and self-directed cultural survival (Vizenor 1999).

… and the dawn of another day…

However, despite these shared threats, indigenous Amazonians live varied lives, ranging from communities many days of canoe travel beyond the reach of roads to urban existences dependent on continuous cash flow for survival; from landowners to landless; from those who possess traditional knowledge of the forest to those who reject the old ways in favour of mobile phones and computer games. The impact of COVID-19 on Amazonian communities will be as uneven as their circumstances.

See also three short video recordings with Ofelia Salazar of AMUPAKIN talking about Indigenous Amazonian responses to COVID-19.