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Beyond biological warfare: Why COVID-19 is a matter of land distribution in Latin America

Land concentration is one of the main causes for the high rates of poverty, economic inequality and the polarization of political structures in Latin America.

Marilia Heloisa Fraga Arantes
Marilia Arantes
29 July 2020
Children of the Huni Kuni tribe in the state of Acre walk through their burnt land, which was set on fire by the local farmers in September, 2019
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David Tesinsky/Zuma Press/PA Images

The COVID-19 pandemic is the direct cause of death for hundreds of indigenous people in Latin America. Highlighting that governments have failed to control the spread of the virus due to both negligence and lack of preparation. But the former leaders who contributed to the economic model based on land concentration also fostered the catastrophic expansion of the coronavirus among indigenous communities.

Comparisons between the spread of COVID-19 in indigenous communities and the colonial ‘biological war’ are commonplace. But this may not be the most accurate comparison.

Indeed, biological warfare was one of the factors that allowed violent colonial domination over indigenous peoples. At the time, unknown diseases decimated and weakened communities, allowing the colonizers to impose a regime of violence, marginalization and exploitation. Biological warfare has contributed to the state of precariousness that has persisted over indigenous peoples for centuries.

Today, centuries after the Iberian invasion of the Latin American continent, indigenous peoples have already had forced contact with diseases common to non-indigenous people. But as a result of the social structures inherited from the colonial exploitation period, they live in conditions of near total lack of access to basic health services. In Latin America, up to 30% of those who live in extreme poverty and health vulnerability are indigenous.

Because of the process of land concentration that started in the colonial period, indigenous communities were squeezed out and expelled from their ancestral lands. Ever since, they have been neglected by States aligned with the land-grabbing project. The centuries-long struggles and violence left them vulnerable to sanitary crises, such as that of COVID-19.

While Brazil exceeds 80,000 COVID-19 deaths, official data shows that 50 of these deaths were of indigenous people. However, since the virus is likely to spread among the communities, the expected impact is likely to be more severe. The Xavante ethnic group, for instance, has reported 21 deaths as a result of the virus and 168 infections.

As these numbers become part of the official data, the immeasurable impact of the loss of indigenous elders will be untold. In Brazil, in recent weeks, the Mundukuru people suffered 12 fatal coronavirus victims, 11 of whom were elderly. Elders are key figures in communities, as they carry the ancestral knowledge and play a leadership role in the struggle over land. In countries where indigenous peoples have organized to fight for the right to their ancestral lands, elders are essential for engagement and mobilization.

One of the one of the main factors driving this regime of health precarity is the land-ownership structure in Latin America: today, 1% of the largest farms occupy 51% of all land in Latin America

The picture is similar on the other side of the Amazon Forest, in Peru. Although Lima enacted mandatory quarantine at the early stages of the pandemic, Peru has the third highest number of COVID-19 fatalities on the American continent. As Peru is home to one of the largest indigenous populations in Latin America, this group is increasingly threatened by the pandemic.

Among the Shipibo people from the Amazon region of Caimito, 80% showed symptoms of the disease, out of a population of about 750 – but only 20 people could be tested. Among the Shipibo koniboliving in the Ucayali region, 58 fatalities have been recorded to date. Underreporting and lack of testing may be covering up a foretold catastrophe among indigenous communities in the Amazonian tri-border region.

The rising number of COVID-19 cases among indigenous peoples is also a matter of land. To understand this connection, it is necessary to first understand how indigenous peoples in Latin America were already victims of diseases, which are often the 'markers of inequality’ even before COVID-19. Indigenous peoples experience higher rates of respiratory diseases, such as tuberculosis. In Brazil, for example, respiratory diseases are the main cause of death among indigenous populations.

One of the one of the main factors driving this regime of health precarity is the land-ownership structure in Latin America. Rooted in the colonial distribution of land, today, 1% of the largest farms occupy 51% of all land in Latin America. In Brazil alone, 1% of farms filll 44% of the land, while in Peru, this 1% holds 77.03%.

For centuries, indigenous communities have been victims of the expansion of extractivism, which forces them out of their ancestral land. As OXFAM describes in a 2016 report, land concentration is one of the main causes for the high rates of poverty, economic inequality and the polarization of political structures in Latin America.

For decades, indigenous communities have had their rights violated over land conflicts. Brazil is clearly an example of how the political organization over land ownership contributes to this scenario.

The Parliamentary Agricultural Front is the greatest political force in the Brazilian parliament and actively tries to undermine the rights and living conditions of the indigenous peoples. Today, the front is comprised of 257 members, nearly 50% of both chambers of Congress. It is estimated that Congress has passed 1900 anti-indigenous legal procedures in the last 2 years.

Despite official measures of social distancing and quarantine, miners continue to invade indigenous lands without respecting health protocols, spreading the virus and threatening communities

The land concentration process is reinforced by the dismantling of basic services to the communities, including health care. In Brazil, in recent decades, the authority over indigenous health care has been passed to different government bodies, with no effective measures taken to resolve structural problems. The appeal of the communities to decentralize the control of the current Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health has been ignored. Meanwhile, the current administration has dismantled councils and social control mechanisms that allowed communities to voice their demands.

The Covid-19 pandemic has indiscriminately affected populations around the world. But in Latin America, the process of and land grabbing and land concentration, backed by the States, has weakened the response capacity of indigenous communities to the COVID-19 crisis.

As an aggravating factor to the lack of infrastructure and state support, the attempt of several communities to isolate to avoid contagion was precluded by activities related to land grabbing, such as illegal mining in protected indigenous lands. Despite official measures of social distancing and quarantine, miners continue to invade indigenous lands without respecting health protocols, spreading the virus and threatening communities.

Some peoples, like the Yanomami in Brazil, are engaged in criticizing these activities and protecting communities, but have so far failed to garner support from public authorities.

The problems of precariousness in indigenous health care and land concentration are structural. But the irreparable human cost of COVID-19 is happening now. Right now, mitigating actions against COVID-19 must come through the allocation of public resources. However, in the long run, the main way to resolve the poverty pandemic that afflicts indigenous communities is to ensure once and for all their right to their ancestral lands.

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