The incomprehensible tragedy unfolding in the Amazon during the pandemic

Houses stand along the river of the Santo Ezequiel Moreno community, during the novel coronavirus outbreak, in the municipality of Portel, on Marajo island, Para state, Brazil, on June 5. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)
Houses stand along the river of the Santo Ezequiel Moreno community, during the novel coronavirus outbreak, in the municipality of Portel, on Marajo island, Para state, Brazil, on June 5. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

In 2016, I was living in the central Peruvian Amazon to research the impacts of the expansion of oil palm onto the indigenous ancestral territory of Santa Clara de Uchunya. I was invited to visit a community called Caimito with my friend and colleague Ronald Suárez, now the elected leader of the Shipibo-Conibo, one of Peru’s largest indigenous peoples with a population of around 30,000. The town is eight hours away by speedboat from Pucallpa, Peru’s main city in the central Amazon, and easily double that for the residents dependent on the slower local ferry. The village’s chief was excited to show us the three-room school — the pride of a town in which electricity is available for an hour a day via generator and the main mode of communication is radio.

At the end of May, Ronald messaged me to tell me his mother had passed away from covid-19 complications. Days later, he messaged saying that Caimito has an estimated 80 percent infection rate from covid-19, two nurses and essentially no medicine. Then, two weeks ago, I received an urgent message from a friend telling me that Ronald, too, had been infected and was in the hospital in critical condition with a lung infection.

This is just a tiny snapshot of a larger incomprehensible tragedy unfolding all over the Amazon and in indigenous communities around the world. Indigenous people are an especially at-risk group — and not because of communal living structures and weak immune systems, which seems to be the dominant media message. Rather, centuries of exploitation, persecution and state abandonment have left them with some of the highest poverty rates and lowest access to quality health care in the Americas. In addition, they face greater exposure to environmental waste and degradation from extractivist industries, whose products and profits flow back to places such as the United States.

The current situation in the Amazon exemplifies this. In Ecuador, several indigenous nations accused Chevron of perpetrating a massive environmental catastrophe and have been fighting for years to get any kind of compensation. They had their waterways polluted again when two oil pipelines burst just weeks after Ecuador declared a national lockdown over the pandemic. The primary source of food and water for 27,000 indigenous people is now polluted by nearly 16,000 barrels of petroleum.

Last month, one of these nations, the Siekopai, with a population of just 700, had registered over half of all confirmed cases among indigenous people in the Ecuadoran Amazon. Their neighbors, the Waorani, had to take the Ecuadoran government to court to get them to supply adequate health care to their communities. This week, an alliance of indigenous leaders and human rights organizations made an urgent demand for government assistance, which has still not arrived two months after the oil spill. They, along with many indigenous groups in the Amazon, are calling out the government for perpetuating what they are terming genocide.

It isn’t just Ecuador. The Colombian border town of Leticia, a main commercial hub for many indigenous groups, has the highest per-capita death rate in the country, according to figures from Colombia’s Health Ministry. A disproportionate amount of those deaths are of indigenous people. In Brazil, the death rate for indigenous people is double that of the non-indigenous society, and horrific accounts from inside the Brazilian Amazon warn that the pandemic is killing elders — keepers of language, history, culture and ecological knowledge — at an alarming rate.

And it is not only the direct impact of the pandemic that is threatening indigenous people. In the Araribóia indigenous territory in Maranhão state, where forest guardian Paulo Paulino was killed last year trying to protect one of the last remaining swaths of old-growth Amazon rainforest in the state, about 100 families are now at risk of starvation. Travel into and out of their community has been halted and food delivery trucks are no longer arriving. The chief has made an urgent plea for help.

The modern Western world, built on the back of centuries of exploitation of indigenous land, knowledge and labor, has facilitated the spread of covid-19 and bears responsibility for this ongoing tragedy. Our modern consumption practices, university endowments and pension funds, and corporations and banks are directly tied to the conditions experienced by many indigenous people in the Amazon. The United States accounts for a significant amount of the capital and demand that drives extractivist industries in South America. Around two-thirds of all of Ecuador’s oil exports end up in the United States. Animals fattened off of soybeans from the Cerrado and chocolate made with Amazonian cocoa and palm oil land on our plates every day. The gold in many of our electronic devices is likely traceable to illegal mines in the Amazon.

Now, in perhaps their greatest moment of need, we have left them to deal with this massive crisis on their own. Indigenous communities, associations and nongovernmental organizations have launched campaigns, but money is scarce. Governmental, international and humanitarian aid is even scarcer.

It is time for the international community to center the health and well-being of indigenous people, whose fight against covid-19 is made more difficult because of centuries of discrimination and exploitation. To be silent about our role in creating the tragedy happening in indigenous communities, and to not demand an end to the destruction of their land, is to be complicit in their genocide.

Sarah Sax is a journalist who covers the intersections of land rights, commodities and the environment.

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