Pandemic in the Amazon

This is an expanded version of an article I co-wrote with John Martin Pedersen, which appeared in The Conversation ‘How indigenous people in the Amazon are coping with the coronavirus pandemic‘. This expanded version includes several paragraphs that did not meet editorial approval.

Shipibo people in the Ucayali region (Peruvian Amazon)

We also collect additional reference material here, especially statements and messages directly from the Amazon (particularly Ecuador and Peru) which were shared with us specifically for this purpose. This is work in progress [last edit: 15 June 2020].

Video statements (low resolution, recorded and shared via phone):


Pandemic in the Amazon: history repeating in new ways?

There are growing fears that COVID-19 will wreak havoc in indigenous communities in the Amazon, especially after the first deaths have been reported. This fear is not unwarranted, given that Europeans killed an estimated 90% of the original inhabitants of the Americas through bloodshed, enslavement, starvation and, especially, infectious diseases brought along. Fragmented collective memories of deadly pandemics from the time of distant ancestors still circulate in stories of magical deaths caused by foreigners.

We have worked with indigenous communities and federations in the region since 2005, witnessing their struggle against colonisation, deforestation, and the wider fallout from relentless urbanisation – the very conditions that make zoonotic spillover and new infectious diseases more likely. This struggle has an unbroken history of almost 500 years, and the inhabitants of the Amazon have enriched their habitats and ensured edible abundance for at least 4500 years without creating conditions for pandemics, such as overcrowding, poverty, poor health, contamination.

Varied lives

Well ahead of government action, indigenous federations across the Amazon launched extensive campaigns to mitigate the pandemic and its socio-economic consequences.

However, and contrary to common representation in the media, the situation in the Amazon is complex and diverse. Indigenous people live varied lives ranging from communities many canoe days 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 indigenous peoples will be as varied as their circumstances.

For the few who still enjoy functional autonomy in remote communities there is little change: the outside world is an ever encroaching threat and the longer isolation can be maintained, the longer autonomy and cultural survival can be ensured.

Widespread contamination of indigenous territories and increasing lack of proper nutrition due to poverty have had a detrimental effect on the health of many Amazonian people, making them vulnerable to infectious diseases not because of their ethnicity, but because of their exposure to the toxic effects of extractive industries and institutionalised racism of modern states, which makes it harder for them to access good education, healthcare, and jobs. Vulnerability to contagion is a social condition.

One threat among many

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.

Some of those indigenous people who live very remotely are potentially particularly vulnerable because they have had limited or no exposure to other corona viruses and hence may not have acquired immunities over generations. However, whether cross-reactive immunity exists is not a scientific certainty, so their previous non-exposure may or may not make a difference to their vulnerability to the current pandemic.

It is hence also possible, that in those communities where traditional medicine is still practised, where shamans and healers have not been eradicated by missionary zeal or corporate mercenaries, people may be less vulnerable than those of us who have to subsist amid urban squalor, air pollution, and poor diets.

Many indigenous communities still recognise the efficacy of natural medicine, though its use is not always by choice: public hospitals or health centres can be out of reach and badly equipped, and even where they are not, indigenous people are not generally high priority. They are rarely addressed in their own language, often not provided with culturally acceptable food, or otherwise made to feel at ease.

We asked our network of connections in the Ecuadorian Upper Napo and the Peruvian Ucayali regions about local perceptions of needs and wants. While many are out of reach at the moment, having retreated to villages and communities without internet, the message from road-accessible Kichwa communities with whom we have worked for 15 years is unanimous: while concerned about the new disease, a much greater worry is posed by the lockdown. As one leading traditional healer told us: “We have the plants to cure ourselves, but now that we are not allowed to go anywhere, we cannot earn any money.” This was echoed by several other Kichwa medicine people.

Many indigenous families need to bring produce to market, in order to supplement their subsistence, fuel generators and canoes, service debts, and access phones or internet. The lockdown prevents all this. In the absence of any social welfare or other economic support, this is as devastating in the Amazon as it is anywhere.

Among indigenous communities on the urban fringes in the Napo, there is a surge of interest in planting medicinal trees and plants in response to the pandemic. However, for the increasing number of indigenous families who do not have access to land – their territories invaded, degraded, and split into ever smaller parcels as private property regimes took a hold over the forest – the situation is catastrophic. Unsurprisingly, women and children suffer most – as alcohol consumption and domestic violence grow alongside boredom and desperation.

As we write, indigenous communities are taking matters into their own hands across Amazonia. They are closing down access routes and retreating deeper into the forest. Whenever possible they escape into ancestral territories, sometimes to places of cultural or spiritual significance. If you want to back their territorial self-determination, consider supporting small NGOs like Amazon Frontlines which help sustain livelihoods on the ground.

[Addendum: There is now also a self-organised fundraiser by Napo Runa (Kichwa) federations of the Ecuadorian Amazon, which will provide needed funds directly to local indigenous organizations.]

“There are two sides: the agents of waste and the lovers of the wild.
Either for life or against it. And each of us has to choose.”
(Jay Griffiths, Wild, 2008: 9
)