democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Covid-19: Why is it so important to protect indigenous territories?

In the face of the rapid advance of the Covid-19 pandemic around the world, it is worth asking who are among the most vulnerable populations today and why their potential extinction may accelerate ecocide in the short and medium term. Español

Juan Manuel Crespo
7 April 2020
Photo: Francesc Badia i Dalmases
An indigenous family near Puerto Nariño in the Colombian Amazon

The colonization of America was one of the most significant chapters in the recent history of human civilization. Although the wars of conquest and the process of exploitation of indigenous populations are well known, little is said about the impact that the epidemiological factor had on it, and even less that it was this that, to a large extent, allowed the colonizers to take over vast territories and control natural resources. In the context of the unstoppable advance of the Covid-19 pandemic around the world, it is worth asking who are the most vulnerable and what consequences their potential extinction may have in the short and medium term.

The diseases imported by Europeans into the Americas (typhus, smallpox, measles and the bubonic plague) decimated up to 95% of the population of the hemisphere during the first 130 years of the Conquest. To give an example, the smallpox epidemic was what really defeated the Aztecs, after the failure of the first Spanish attack in 1520, the new Aztec emperor after the death of Moctezuma, Cuitláhuac, had reinforced himself militarily and had put Cortés himself on the ropes. However, smallpox, brought by Panfilo de Narvaez's expedition, would be the invisible and unforeseen weapon that really destroyed the Aztec empire, brutally liquidating the population, starting with the feared and warlike Emperor Cuitláhuac, who was infected with smallpox and would die at the end of this 1520.

Thus, in a little more than a century, the Amerindian population had been reduced to a tiny fraction of its size. Colonization was strengthened and it continued until the arrival of the new Latin American republics. A time when what was left of the same Amerindian peoples and their territories changed hands, but the looting, exploitation and racism of these peoples has continued to this day.

Today, in the midst of a climate and ecological crisis, it has become evident that the best conserved territories, in terms of biodiversity and natural resources, are those where indigenous peoples still live. Currently, these territories and their populations are seriously threatened by extractive industries, logging, natural destruction of all kinds and the advance of developmental infrastructures. In other words, coloniality continues to threaten these peoples and their territories in the form of neo-liberal capitalism.

The historical resistance of indigenous peoples in Latin America has been very cruel but at the same time dignified and exemplary. Almost 530 years have passed since the arrival of Columbus, and military campaigns, pandemics, exploitation, racism and abuses against the indigenous population, as well as the plundering and displacement of their territories, have largely destroyed their populations and cultures.

Today, in the face of a death threat, they have shown us an alternative and dignified life that balances nature and living well.

Despite all this, however, some of their territories and cultures have resisted in surprising ways, demonstrating an admirable capacity for resilience. Even in the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, indigenous movements have gained unprecedented political strength. Such has been the case of Ecuador and Bolivia, where these movements were central to the construction of new political constitutions, introducing concepts and paradigms from their ancestral roots that have been shared with the rest of the population. Today, in the face of a death threat, they have shown us an alternative and dignified life that balances nature and living well.

In this active resistance, the protection of their territories has been one of the most important survival strategies, especially in the case of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. The forest, in many ways, has provided an impenetrable geographical space that has given them the possibility to escape death and oppression in order to survive. This is the case of isolated communities who have found that the only possibility of life, is to live in territories that are “inhospitable” to western civilisation.

But now, while their freedom continues to be curtailed and increasingly decimated by all the threats mentioned, these indigenous people are being threatened more than ever before by the arrival of the global Covid-19 pandemic, leaving them once again in a position of maximum vulnerability.

The news on April 1st, 2020, confirming a COVID-19 infection in a woman who was part of an isolated tribe in Brazil, shows that this pandemic could have disastrous consequences for indigenous people, even more so for isolated Amazonian populations. They are particularly vulnerable because, according to the UN, more than 50 percent of indigenous people over the age of 35 suffer from type 2 diabetes. In addition to this, indigenous peoples experience high levels of maternal and infant mortality, malnutrition, cardiovascular diseases and other infectious diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis.

In a statement issued on March 31st, the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (Coica) made an emergency call to the governments of the member countries to adopt health measures and draw up contingency plans in accordance with the specific situation of the indigenous peoples. Among the measures proposed by the regional indigenous organization is a strict control of entry and exit to indigenous territories, especially for people who do not belong to these communities, as well as limiting the access of indigenous people to places of tourism or where there are crowds. In addition, it is suggested that specific plans be drawn up to deal with possible outbreaks of the coronavirus.

Today, in the midst of a climate and ecological crisis, it has become evident that the best conserved territories, in terms of biodiversity and natural resources, are those where indigenous peoples still live.

The most worrying thing is that states are not taking adequate measures, nor have they even drawn up special protocols for cases of pandemics in indigenous peoples' territories. WHO itself has warned of this in Ecuador, where the representative warned that there are currently no epidemiological surveillance protocols in the country to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among indigenous peoples and nationalities.

The irony of this is that several studies show that the appearance of these rare new viruses, such as the coronavirus COVID-19, is nothing more than the product of the destruction of ecosystems, mostly tropical, that have been destroyed for agricultural, livestock or extractive industries. They are also the result of the manipulation and trafficking of wildlife, which in many cases is in danger of extinction. It is precisely these communities, which make up no more than 5% of the world's population, that have best preserved almost 80% of the most biodiverse areas on the planet to date.

Indigenous communities have lived the paradox of surviving foreign epidemics, they have been doing it since the arrival of the Spanish Empire with pandemics of different kinds, such as smallpox. In general foreign epidemics have been a constant for these communities in the recent centuries. The republican era has been no exception. In the Amazonian countries, "pandemics" such as the missionary expeditions, the rubber boom and the expansion of oil activities, even caused the extinction of many indigenous cultures. Such is the case of the Tetetes and the Sansahuari in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where these peoples went from being ancient cultures with knowledge and territories, to simply being names of the first oil platforms that the Texaco and Gulf companies installed in the 1960s and 1970s.

The big question then that arises today in the face of the spread of the COVID-19 is whether once again the most vulnerable will be the most affected. Could it be that this "invisible" weapon once again can become the most effective weapon to penetrate farthest corners of life left on our planet? Could it be that as humanity we finally place life at the centre of our priorities and even more so those territories where life reproduces?

If anything should become clear in the days after this pandemic it what the Mexican Ana Esther Ceceña says: “within capitalism there is no solution to life; outside of capitalism there is uncertainty, but everything is possibility. Nothing can be worse than the certainty of extinction. It is time to invent, it is time to be free, it is time to live well.”

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