Coronavirus decimating indigenous Latin American communities

by Lucia LACURCIA with AFP bureaus
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The Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil group has accused the national government of doing "nothing" to protect indigenous tribes, such as the Ticuna community (members pictured), from the coronavirus

Indigenous people in Latin America have been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic due to weak immune systems and centuries of state neglect.

The threat posed to indigenous communities was highlighted last week with the virus death of Brazilian chief Paulinho Paiakan, an iconic defender of the Amazon rainforest, which is home to 420 indigenous communities.

Paiakan's death in a hospital in the north of Brazil was one of more than 300 amongst the country's 100 indigenous communities, according to the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) group. That was five times as many deaths as in the whole of 2019.

The APIB accuses the government of far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro of having "done nothing" to prevent the relentless spread of coronavirus in areas where 750,000 indigenous people live. So far, more than 5,300 have been infected.

Brazil is the second-worst-hit country in the world, with more than a million infections and over 50,000 deaths from COVID-19.

"If he had adopted preventative measures from the beginning, we would have avoided this number of deaths," Sonia Guajajara, APIB coordinator, told a podcast for the Socio-Environmental Institute NGO (ISA).

Nonagenarian Kaiapo leader Raoni Metuktire claimed Bolsonaro was "taking advantage" of the pandemic to further exploitative projects in the Amazon that could endanger indigenous communities.

The Pan American Health Organization says that at least 20,000 people living in the Amazon River basin, which passes through Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname, are infected.

On the border between Brazil and Venezuela, the Yanomamis territory is occupied by around 20,000 illegal miners, according to Survival International.

Sometimes, the illegal miners and loggers carry the virus with them, exposing indigenous populations to danger.

A study by the Federal University of Minas Gerais and ISA predicted that 14,000 Yanomamis could become infected if authorities don't act to protect them.

- 'Fear for ancestral wisdom' -

Wearing a crown of feathers, a necklace of tusks and a surgical mask, Remberto Cahuamari is worried that the loss of "grandparents" to COVID-19 will rob the Ticuna community in the Colombian department of Amazonas of its ancestral wisdom.

"We'd be left with our young who in the future won't know anything about our cultures and our customs. That's what scares us," he told AFP.

A man with his face covered by a mask and holding a stick watches over the entrance to the village of El Progreso, which can only be reached by the Tucushira, one of more than 1,000 tributaries of the Amazon.

This poor and depopulated part of southern Colombia has seen 320 coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants -- the worst in the country -- and 954 deaths per million, compared to Colombia's average of just 33.

Two-thirds of the village's population is indigenous, and "at risk of extinction," according to Colombia's National Indigenous Organization.

The extensive area has no road connection to the rest of the country, and the only public hospital has no intensive care unit.

"When COVID-19 arrived, our defences were low," Armando Wooriyu, secretary to a local indigenous organization, told AFP.

He said some communities have moved to remote locations or closed off access and turned to traditional medicine to fight the virus.

In Loreto, in the Peruvian jungle, the virus has hit communities already affected by dengue, flu, rubella and smallpox.

Some areas are only accessible by boat, and the nearest medical facility is "between six and eight hours, and up to three days or more" away, said the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the East.

It said 60 percent of villages are lacking either a medical center, equipment or medicine.

The Yuqui people from the tropical center of Bolivia are "in grave danger" of disappearing after 16 of its 300 members became infected, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

- 'Pandemic of abandonment' -

Poverty is further exacerbating the situation.

Some 5,000 Qom people living in Chaco, in the north of Argentina, rely on social support as quarantine rules have prevented them from selling their handicrafts.

Malnutrition doesn't help, and there have been 16 deaths in less than a month.

"These are vulnerable neighborhoods where they live in overcrowded situations, without access to basic services such as running water, which makes the virus spread faster," said Argentina's Social Development Minister Daniel Arroyo.

In Guatemala, where half the population is indigenous, government assistance "hasn't had an impact in places where the largest indigenous populations live," said the human rights ombudsman in early June.

"There's already a pandemic of abandonment" of indigenous people, Daniel Pascual, coordinator of the Peasant Unity Committee, told AFP.

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The Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil group has accused the national government of doing "nothing" to protect indigenous tribes, such as the Ticuna community (members pictured), from the coronavirus

A Warao family receives attention from Doctors Without Borders medics in Manaos, northern Brazil

The threat posed to indigenous communities by the coronavirus was highlighted by the death of Brazilian chief Paulinho Paiakan (pictured 2017), an iconic defender of the Amazon rainforest

Members of the Ticuna community in El Progresso, Colombia pose with face masks

A Ticuna girl holding a wild boar in the village of El Progreso, Colombia

Ticuna people are worried that the loss of "grandparents" to COVID-19 will rob the community of its ancestral wisdom