Averting a Coronavirus-Induced Ethnocide in Latin America

Stephanie Burgos Climate Change, Indigenous People, Land rights

This year August 9thInternational Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples – comes at a critical moment. Far from hospitals and news cameras, indigenous people in Latin America are contracting COVID-19 and dying without access to the means needed to protect themselves. The pandemic has yet to reach its peak in the region and the virus is spreading from urban centers to rural areas at full speed. The lives of 45 million who belong to 800 indigenous peoples across all the region’s countries are at particular risk.

To avert ethnocide, Oxfam is calling on the governments of Latin America to take strong measures to protect and ensure the rights of indigenous peoples. That means both addressing healthcare needs to save lives and safeguarding territorial rights to protect their way of life and environmental stewardship.

Warning signs, structural inequalities and discrimination

Leaders of COICA (Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin) warned of a possible ethnocide in April as they issued an urgent call for international aid. The situation has only worsened since then. By mid-July the coronavirus had already reached 172 of the 400 Indigenous peoples in the Amazon. The number of deaths among the indigenous population there increased nine-fold due to COVID-19 over the previous two months, twice the increase registered among the general population.

The effects of the health and economic crisis caused by the pandemic are further exacerbating the structural inequalities and social exclusion long suffered by the indigenous population in Latin America. They now face the pandemic in conditions of racism and discrimination, a result of historical inequalities and extreme precariousness in basic health and social services.

Indigenous women suffer triple discrimination, being female, indigenous and poor. At a time when the caregiving responsibilities generally assumed by women have both increased dramatically due to the pandemic and imply a greater risk of contracting the virus. They also tend to have less access to healthcare and information in their native languages.

Failure to support and protect

Faced with the pandemic’s advance and government inaction, indigenous peoples have taken the initiative and established measures for self-protection. Even before confinement was declared by national governments, numerous indigenous communities closed access to their territories through quarantine boundaries to stop the spread of the virus. They developed their own response protocols, informative materials, solidarity networks for the supply of food to isolated populations and case tracking. They also continue their traditional medicine practices and production of basic foods. 

But not only are governments failing to support their efforts and coordinate effectively with indigenous authorities to meet the needs of indigenous populations, they are failing to stop extractive industries or agribusiness companies, much less illegal actors engaged in similar activities, from spreading the virus to indigenous communities and remote rural areas where access to healthcare services is practically non-existent. Worse still, several governments have declared these businesses to be “essential” and have undertaken to loosen regulations and weaken social and environmental safeguards for their operations.

As a result, the pandemic has brought increased violence to rural areas by those seeking to expand their control over land and territories for natural resource exploitation (for both legal and illegal activities) as well as by some police and military, as ‘states of exception’ and related actions may enable a disproportionate use of force. Latin America has long been the deadliest continent for land and environmental defenders, with indigenous peoples at disproportionally higher risk. Women carry a greater burden from this violence, as well as from the health inequities and environmental destruction.

The link between over-exploiting nature, climate change and COVID-19

Indigenous organizations have long been demanding change to the ‘extractivist’ model of development that sees nature as an inexhaustible source of resources to exploit. The way land is managed or exploited is central to the problem of climate change. This has been documented by the IPCC, which has recognized the important role of indigenous communities in stewarding and safeguarding the world’s land and forests. Indigenous peoples own, manage, use or occupy at least a quarter of global land. Areas where biodiversity and ecosystems are better protected but which are under increasing pressure.

Environmental degradation increases the risk of pandemics like COVID-19 because it multiplies the possibilities of contagion from a virus crossing the barrier between species to infect humans by reducing the buffering effect of healthy ecosystems that help limit closer contact between humans and wildlife.

The COVID-19 crisis is taking an alarming and disproportionate toll on indigenous peoples in Latin America. Affecting their lives, their territories and the survival of their cultures. It’s a wake-up call to change course and leave behind the ‘extractivist’ model that relies on overexploiting nature and serves to further concentrate wealth and exacerbate inequality. Accelerated deforestation, species loss, pollution and climate change are a threat not only to the survival and wellbeing of indigenous peoples, but to all people and to the planet.

What needs to be done

Urgent action is needed by governments in Latin America to coordinate with indigenous authorities to effectively provide their communities with protective equipment, diagnostic tests and ensure access to healthcare, water and food, particularly for the most vulnerable persons. Governments must respect and support quarantine boundaries established by indigenous communities in their territories, take action to stop the increased violence against them, and suspend all activities that represent a risk of contagion.  

In their crisis recovery efforts, governments must adopt appropriate measures to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and provide the investment needed to mitigate the socioeconomic impact of the health crisis affecting them. That includes actions to address longstanding discrimination, reduce disparities in access to healthcare and water, and ensure their collective territorial rights. Governments must also act to transform the model of growth based on ‘extractivism’ and the overexploitation of natural resources, which has toxic effects on the wellbeing of indigenous peoples and their territories as well as on the health of the environment.

For more information, read the full report Averting Ethnocide and listen to the recent Webinar (available in Spanish and with English interpretation) that discusses the actions needed to protect the lives and rights of indigenous peoples in the face of COVID-19 in Latin America.


Stephanie Burgos