Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon and COVID-19

Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon and COVID-19


Indigenous peoples in the Amazon and COVID-19: the long-term importance of realizing indigenous rights in achieving the human right to health

Blogpost by Alice Kasznar, Brazilian lawyer and Research Assistant at the Nature of Peace project at RWI.

Exposing inequalities wherever it goes,[1] COVID-19 has recently found its way to more remote indigenous communities in the Amazon, which is home to approximately 350 ethnic groups.[2] By the end of June, 383 indigenous persons had died from the disease only in Brazil, most of them in the Amazon.[3]

The current state of vulnerability of indigenous peoples in the region highlights the long-term importance of enforcing individual and collective human rights for the full enjoyment of the right to health.

Despite the different levels of exposure and socio-economic realities of communities living in the Amazon biome, which is divided among 9 countries, indigenous organisations identified common factors that increase the risk of contagion among indigenous peoples: social and economic disenfranchisement, decreased access to health services and information, poor sanitation, collective lifestyles, and frequent invasion of indigenous lands. [4]

Apply an Intersectoral Approach

In line with international and regional human rights frameworks,[5] in April, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued Resolution 1/2020 recommending that member states apply an intersectoral approach to their responses to the pandemic, considering specific needs of those groups more vulnerable to the pandemic, among which, indigenous peoples.

Besides approaching urgent containment measures, including specific measures for indigenous peoples,[6] it is noteworthy that the Commission also highlighted the impact of historical and structural socio-economic factors on the enjoyment of the human right to health. According to the Commission, issues such as extreme poverty, inequality, pollution and discrimination have a critical impact on groups’ ability to respond to the pandemic. The Commission also stressed that the basic social determinants of the human right to health are related to the content of other human rights, especially economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, and recommended that states take mitigation measures that consider the protection of these rights.

Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon and COVID-19
When indigenous leaders from across the Amazon Basin met in Bogotá calling for the consolidation of the biggest environmental and cultural corridor in the world in 2018. Credit: Cesar David Martinez/Avaaz

Suffering from injustices and violence perpetuated since colonial times, indigenous peoples have seen their rights spelled out in national and international norms, such as the right to collective property over their traditional lands and natural resources, to participate in decision-making and the right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), besides the right to have their traditional knowledge and cultures protected. Implementation of these rights could not only contribute to redressing historical injustices but also to increase communities’ economic and social resilience. In fact, enforcing the right to communal land and natural resources is considered the adequate strategy to reduce structural poverty and ensure that indigenous peoples have a dignified life while respecting their cultural distinctiveness.[7]

Violations Happening in the Amazon

However, realization and enforcement of indigenous rights is insufficient, with notorious cases of rights violations happening in the Amazon. Even when communities have acquired land tenure, violations of other rights, such as the right to live in a healthy environment (art. 11 of the Protocol of San Salvador), have hindered the full enjoyment of acquired indigenous rights. For instance, illegal economic activities in the Amazon are causing environmental degradation in or surrounding indigenous lands. This not only undermines indigenous livelihoods and the enjoyment of land rights, but when conflicts escalate, they also result in deaths. Illegal mining is polluting water bodies and leaving communities with little access to potable water.[8] Forest fires, another cause of environmental degradation in the Amazon, are also a threat to indigenous livelihoods and wellbeing.[9] Commonly used to clear land for pastures despite local restrictions,[10] forest fires can affect communities even when they are set outside of indigenous lands; for instance, by decreasing biodiversity in the region, which is essential for the provision of ecosystem services.[11]

Now, these human rights violations are also jeopardizing communities’ ability to cope with the pandemic.

Polluted water hampers sanitation efforts and forest fires decrease air quality, reducing communities’ resilience to respiratory diseases. After a surge in fire hotspots in the Brazilian Amazon in April this year, Brazil’s National Monitoring and Alert Center on Natural Disasters (Cemaden) issued an alert due to a possible increase in demand for healthcare,[12] in a region where hospitals are already saturated by COVID-19 cases.[13]

Communities’ Ability to Cope with the Pandemic

Invasion of indigenous lands to access natural resources also became a greater threat during the pandemic. Studies show that frequent entrance of non-indigenous peoples is one of the main factors leading to contamination by COVID-19 in the Amazon.[14] Specialists also observed a correlation between high rates of deforestation due to illegal activities in indigenous lands and higher levels of vulnerability[15], such as the case of the Yanomami land.[16] Frequently trespassed by thousands of illegal miners, the territory which is home to approximately 27.000 indigenous persons,[17] among which some groups living in voluntary isolation, has had 3 deaths from the disease until the first week of June, including a 15-year old boy.[18]

Indigenous peoples living in the shared border between Colombia, Ecuador and Perú have also struggled against the expansion of extractive activities in the region and the dominance of armed non-state actors. Based on these imminent threats to their physical and cultural survival,[19] indigenous organisations requested the IACHR’s Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to monitor and ensure that governments take effective measures to protect indigenous peoples during the pandemic. In their request, they also emphasized the importance of respecting land rights and territorial integrity to cope with the disease.[20] Observing the critical situation of indigenous peoples in the region, it is thus clear that their vulnerability is not only the result of centuries of historical injustices but also a consequence of lack of effective enjoyment of their recognized rights in current times.

Deforestation Amazon
Deforestation in the Amazon, picture by Cesar David Martinez/Avaaz

On the other hand, despite a history of injustices, indigenous communities have played an important role in paving the way for a sustainable future. Indigenous knowledge can be a valuable basis for developing responses to environmental change.[21] [22] In the Amazon, some Indigenous territories have served as buffer zones against deforestation and as carbon sinks.[23] As studies show that environmental change and anthropogenic land use change can contribute to the outbreak of new diseases,[24] indigenous environmental achievements are valuable for human health not only in a regional scale, but at a global level. It is thus also worth mentioning that throughout Resolution 1/2020, the IACHR adopted the “ESCER” acronym, placing the protection of environmental human rights in the same level as economic, social and cultural rights, in line with the Inter-American Court of Human Right’s developments on the matter.[25]

Indigenous Communities Role in a Sustainable Future

In brief, the examples discussed here evidence the long-term importance of realizing indigenous rights, especially land rights, in the Amazon (and elsewhere) to increase indigenous communities’ resilience in coping with the current COVID 19 pandemic and the spread of future diseases. A systematic analysis of the challenges faced by indigenous peoples in the region also shine a light on the need to combine the implementation and protection of indigenous rights with the realization of other economic, social, cultural and environmental human rights in order for communities to achieve full enjoyment of not only the right to health, but other indigenous rights, confirming the interconnectedness and interdependency of all human rights.

Finally, to avoid future threats not only for indigenous peoples and for humanity as a whole, post-coronavirus recovery must include respect, protection and promotion of indigenous rights, ensuring land tenure and territorial integrity, while strengthening environmental protection.

[1] https://feature.undp.org/coronavirus-vs-inequality/

[2] http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/informes/pdfs/Panamazonia2019.pdf

[3] Numbers were obtained from http://emergenciaindigena.apib.info/dados_covid19/ database organized by Brazilian indigenous organizations that argue that authorities are underreporting the total number of cases  since only persons living in indigenous lands are being counted as indigenous, as explained in https://www.socioambiental.org/pt-br/noticias-socioambientais/indigenas-mortos-com-teste-positivo-de-covid-19-ja-sao-11-casos-confirmados-dobram-em-dois-dias

[4] https://www.cejil.org/sites/default/files/2020_04_20_carta_ppii_transfronterizos_cidh_onu_.pdf and https://www.socioambiental.org/pt-br/noticias-socioambientais/indigenas-apelam-a-oms-por-medidas-especiais-contra-a-covid-19

[5] Core obligations regarding the protection of the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health are found in the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ISCER). Most of the Amazonian states have also ratified the American Convention on Human Rights and the Protocol of San Salvador, in which states specifically agreed to adopt measures to satisfy the health needs of the highest risk groups and of those whose poverty makes them the most vulnerable (art. 10). States should also follow the minimum human rights standards concerning indigenous peoples’ health and wellbeing, as established in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP): the right to access, without any discrimination, to all social and health services (art. 24, §1), to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (art. 24, §2), and to participate in the development of Indigenous health programs (art. 18, art 23), among others.

[6] The IACHR advised governments to provide information in native languages; unconditionally respect non-contact with indigenous communities living in voluntary isolation; offer culturally appropriate healthcare to indigenous peoples and temporarily refrain from adopting measures that would require conducting prior informed and free consent processes, in respect to social distancing.

[7] On the interconnectedness of ensuring a dignified life and the right to traditional land, see Fuentes, A. (2017). Protection of Indigenous Peoples’ Traditional Lands and Exploitation of Natural Resources: The Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ Safeguards, International Journal on Minority and Group Rights24(3), 229-253. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/15718115-02403006. In line with this argument and proposing how to tackle the root causes of severe poverty among indigenous peoples, see Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform, ‘Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) ‘Suggestions For The High Level Political Forum’s Consideration To Ensure That Indigenous Peoples Are Not Left Behind In The 2030 Agenda’ (2017).

[8] https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2017/04/20/politica/1492722067_410462.html

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/29/brazil-amazon-wildfires-indigenous-reserves-remote-areas

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/05/a-deadly-cycle-of-destruction-how-greed-for-land-is-fuelling-amazon-fires

[11] https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/fr/document.html?reference=IPOL_IDA%282020%29648792

[12]https://www.socioambiental.org/sites/blog.socioambiental.org/files/nsa/arquivos/dematamento_fogo_covid19_aragao_et_al.pdf

[13] https://www.socioambiental.org/pt-br/noticias-socioambientais/aumento-de-desmatamento-e-queimadas-deve-piorar-crise-de-covid-19-no-xingu

[14]https://www.socioambiental.org/pt-br/noticias-socioambientais/covid-19-pode-contaminar-40-dos-yanomami-cercados-pelo-garimpo-ilegal and Modelagem da vulnerabilidade dos povos indígenas no Brasil ao covid-19 (2019), Oliveira, U., Soares Filho, B., Oviedo, A., dos Santos, T. M., Carlos, S., Alves, J. R. R., Piaz, A., https://drive.google.com/file/d/1H596_oDmOGf4mOTziHGIrbYM17PdycVj/view

[15] https://acervo.socioambiental.org/acervo/noticias/como-desmatamento-pode-explicar-casos-de-covid-19-entre-indigenas

[16] https://www.socioambiental.org/pt-br/node/6812

[17] https://terrasindigenas.org.br/pt-br/terras-indigenas/4016

[18] https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-52886924

[19] See Fuentes, A. (2017). Protection of Indigenous Peoples’ Traditional Lands and Exploitation of Natural Resources: The Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ Safeguards, International Journal on Minority and Group Rights24(3), 229-253. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/15718115-02403006

[20] https://www.cejil.org/sites/default/files/2020_04_20_carta_ppii_transfronterizos_cidh_onu_.pdf

[21] Nakashima, D.J., Galloway McLean, K., Thulstrup, H.D., Ramos Castillo, A. and Rubis, J.T. 2012. Weathering Uncertainty: Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Assessment and Adaptation. Paris, UNESCO, and Darwin, UNU, 120 pp., https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000216613

[22] Specialists also call attention to the impact that the pandemic could have on indigenous culture since COVID-19’s death toll increases with age and in many communities, elders are in charge of keeping and transmitting traditional knowledge to younger generations (refer to footnote 14)

[23] See Blackman, A., Corral, L., Lima, E. S., Asner, G. P. (2017) Titling indigenous communities protects forests, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Apr 2017, 114 (16) 4123-4128; www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1603290114 and Ding, H., Veit, P., Gray, E., Reytar, K., Altamirano-Cabrera, J., Blackman, A., Hodgdon, B. (2016). Climate Benefits, Tenure Costs: The Economic Case for Securing Indigenous Land Rights in the Amazon. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309034066

[24] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/destroyed-habitat-creates-the-perfect-conditions-for-coronavirus-to-emerge/ and Nava, A., Shimabukuro, J. S., Chmura, A. A., Luz, S. L. B. (2017) The Impact of Global Environmental Changes on Infectious Disease Emergence with a Focus on Risks for Brazil, ILAR Journal, Volume 58, Issue 3, 2017, p. 393–400, https://doi.org/10.1093/ilar/ilx034

[25] See Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Advisory Opinion OC-23/17 (15 November, 2017).