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Averting ethnocide: Indigenous peoples and territorial rights in crisis in the face of COVID-19 in Latin America

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A cry for help has gone out from the indigenous peoples of Latin America, as COVID-19 is reaching even the most impenetrable corners of the Amazon. Indigenous and civil society organizations are already warning of possible ethnocide. At the time this report is being written, the peak of the pandemic in the region has not yet been reached and the virus is spreading from urban centers to rural areas at full speed.

Four of the ten countries in the world with the largest number of confirmed cases are in Latin America. Brazil is the second country in the world with the highest number of deaths, only exceeded by the United States; Mexico is in fourth place and Peru is tenth. Brazil also ranks second in number of infections, with Peru fifth and Mexico seventh.
Together, these three countries total close to 125,000 deceased and more than 2,600,000 confirmed cases (approximately one of every five in the world).

There are indigenous communities at high risk in every country of the region. At stake are the lives of 45 million people who belong to more than 800 indigenous peoples. Of these, some 100 are spread across several countries, around 200 maintain voluntary isolation or are in initial contact, and nearly 500 are at risk of disappearing due to their reduced numbers. Due to their lower immune resistance, their lack of access to hospital care and the increasing penetration of extractive activities in their territories, indigenous communities in voluntary isolation or in initial contact are cause for particular concern.

Far from hospitals and the news cameras, indigenous people in Latin American become ill and die without access to the means needed to protect themselves. They face the pandemic in conditions of social exclusion, racism and discrimination, which highlights historical inequalities and extreme precariousness in basic and health services.

From Mexico through the countries of Central and South America, including the countries of the Amazon basin, data on the situation of indigenous peoples in this pandemic is neither visible nor complete in official statistics. That which does exist often does not reflect the true situation due to underreporting problems and the lack of disaggregation by ethnicity.7 We will probably never know the extent of the catastrophe.
But thanks to the significant data collection effort carried out by indigenous organizations, we can trace the evolution of the pandemic and see discrepancies with the official figures.

The Amazon region is one of those most affected, with an indigenous population of approximately three million people distributed over nine countries. Of the 400 indigenous peoples that inhabit it, by the middle of July the virus had already reached 172. In barely two months, the number of deaths among the indigenous population increased nine-fold (going from 113 to 1,018), an increase that doubles that registered among the general population. Peru is the country with the highest number of persons affected among the indigenous Amazonian population. There, more than a third of the fatalities in the Amazonian departments correspond to indigenous peoples, according to data collected by the indigenous organizations themselves.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has warned that indigenous peoples are one of the human groups at highest risk from the pandemic. Elementary measures to stop the spread of the virus, such as frequent hand washing, are not feasible without access to running water or soap. Social distancing may be incompatible with the traditional forms of community life that characterize many indigenous populations. In semi-nomadic and gathering communities, the recommended isolation measures mean not being able to access basic means of subsistence.

The health crisis further aggravates the conditions of vulnerability and social exclusion of indigenous populations, with extreme poverty rates that are three times those of the rest of the Latin American population.

As the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warns, displaced and refugee populations are extremely vulnerable. This is the case of numerous bi-national indigenous groups, such as the Wayúu or the Bari living in Colombia along the border with Venezuela, or the 5,000 Warao indigenous persons displaced from Venezuela to the epicentre of the pandemic in Brazil. In addition to not receiving medical assistance due to lack of documentation, these populations are under continuous threat from the illegal armed groups that control the border areas. Added to this are deportations, border closings and measures that restrict their freedom of movement.

For indigenous women, who already suffer triple discrimination because they are women, indigenous and poor, caregiving responsibilities have become even more costly and expose them to a higher risk of infection.
They also have less access to healthcare and information in their own languages. As they themselves affirm: ‘The health and nutrition of our families in our communities is, above all, in the hands of indigenous women; we care for them, conserving and transmitting our ancestral knowledge and practices.’ During the pandemic, women are also more exposed to violence because they cannot escape their assailants and because it is known that in emergency contexts the risk of assaults increases.

Older adults represent the governing authority; they are the custodians and transmitters of ancestral knowledge on such vital issues as language and culture, traditional medicine or forest protection. The fact that COVID-19 death rates are disproportionately higher among the population over 65 years of age is devastating, since the loss of their elderly has irreparable consequences for indigenous peoples. The pandemic is taking iconic leaders who led historic struggles, such as Santiago Manuin in Peru.

Indigenous people living in outskirts of cities, who make up about half of the total indigenous population in Latin America, do not have secure access to water and sanitation, let alone healthcare. The vast majority survive by working informal jobs, which they currently cannot do.
Indigenous women are disproportionately represented in the informal economy. In Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru, for example, 83% of women are employed in the informal sector and lack social protection. Ultimately, hunger and unemployment are pushing hundreds of thousands of people into a mass exodus back to their places of origin, bypassing restrictions on mobility.