The mechanics of neglect and exposure vary from country to country. Throughout the region, the pandemic serves as a vivid reminder of the historic burden imposed since the first waves of colonization touched the shores of the American continent by pathogens, violence, and indifference towards indigenous populations.
Moreover, COVID-19 offers a glimpse into the future of what our world could end up looking like if environmental destruction is not taken seriously by governments. There is growing evidence that deforestation and biodiversity loss lead to the spread of zoonotic diseases. The most contemporary examples include HIV/AIDS, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Ebola, and COVID-19. If mechanisms are not put in place to end human encroachment on the natural world, pandemics borne from an inappropriate interaction between humans and wild animals could become a recurring phenomenon.
But there is hope: if we consider that 22-percent of indigenous territories hold nearly 80-percent of the world’s biodiversity, we can observe that indigenous peoples are critical to ensuring our planetary health. Frequently, they are the first line of defense against environmental destruction. In that sense, ensuring the health of humanity and the planet requires a consolidated effort that acknowledges and incorporates the vision of those who have protected nature for so long, while consciously addressing the disparities imposed upon them through centuries of racism, inequality, and greed.
Given this urgent need, the Center for Justice and International Law worked with several organizations and individuals representing communities from across the hemisphere to issue a series of recommendations to States that address the specific needs of indigenous communities, with full consideration of the needs of women, children and the elderly; their dietary needs and restrictions; their access to basic services like water, food, and healthcare; and whether they live in voluntary isolation, or not; as well as their cosmovision and pursuit of an existence lived in balance with nature and the environment.
Moving forward, governments and organizations must work with indigenous communities with the utmost urgency to develop regional and multilateral responses that consider the intersectional and differential needs within territories to address the pandemic and to prevent any future damage to the environment that could generate a similar health crisis. Their active participation is essential in the design of all medium and long term strategies to support their survival, limit deforestation, and foster a healthy environment, thereby strengthening pillars of our planetary health and the survival of humanity.
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