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e are facing a new genocide.” This is how Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, the General Coordinator of COICA (Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin) commonly refers to the spread of COVID-19 in Amazonian indigenous communities.
As the largest rainforest in the world, the Amazon has conjured dreams of wild, pristine spaces that need protection, or of endless richness and resources to extract (Hecht and Corburn, 2010). But those ideas often render the people who live in rainforests invisible. The current pandemic reveals how the latter applies even to governments of the nine Amazon countries. Settlements in the Amazon have weak health care systems, incapable of addressing the needs of the population even before the coronavirus arrived. Consequently, Amazonian cities are establishing bleak records related to COVID-19: they are among the hardest-hit in Latin America, and have some of the highest mortality rates. Not to mention the dire situations of Amazon basin countries, Brazil having the second highest number of infections in the world. The coronavirus has now reached almost every corner of the basin, as reported by COICA (see Image 1). Some estimates refer to around 20000 cases among indigenous peoples, who are in a particularly vulnerable position due to their weak immunological memories or the long distances to reach emergency services—all while facing the uninterrupted threat of extractivism in their lands.
Accordingly, the current crisis has presented extraordinary challenges to indigenous peoples and organizations. But they have not been passive recipients of the virus. This essay shows how COVID-19 simultaneously shapes and is shaped by three interconnected goals of indigenous politics: Territory, Autonomy and Rights. Taking a political ecology of scale perspective—i.e. scale as socially, politically and biogeographically defined (Neumann, 2009)—I consider the Amazon as an eco-regional scale of analysis of the impact of COVID-19. While recognizing the diversity and uniqueness of the over five hundred peoples/ethnic groups in the Amazon, looking at this scale can provide lessons about their common struggles[i]. Moreover, this can help transcend the constraints of the exclusive framing of nation-states (e.g. Sassen, 2013) or the methodological nationalism that “assumes that the nation/state/society is the natural social and political form of the modern world.” (Wimmer and Schiller, 2002: 302) Additionally, this perspective can expand discussions about the global character of struggles like the indigenous, which are commonly read as restricted to the local (see Castree, 2004).
“The only refuge, the only safe place for indigenous peoples in the Amazon are their communities, and this is why they have decided to close all entries”
Tuntiak Katan, COICA’s Vice Coordinator.
Autonomy is a new paradigm in the anti-colonial struggle of indigenous peoples (Burguete Cal y Mayor, 2010), which displaces the political from the state towards society and emphasizes the collective over the (neoliberal) individual (Stahler-Sholk, 2017). It has been enshrined as the right to self-determination and self-governance in legal instruments including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Ecuadorian and Bolivian Constitutions. In the case of Amazonian indigenous organizations, autonomy represents the possibility for them to define their “own destiny…, direct their own socio-cultural lives… and the rhythm of transformation.” (Ortiz, 2010: 497). This can be achieved through new entities “that can overcome the inherited colonial matrix and the current republican formation,” (Ortiz, 2010: 455) without completely erasing the role of the state. However, governments have resisted claims for autonomy, as this could limit their access to the resources of indigenous lands.
Autonomy is the first political goal that is salient during this pandemic. It takes a new meaning in this context: as the communities’ decision to self-isolate, restrict the entrance of outsiders, and use their own defense mechanisms. Thus, it takes a central role in safeguarding health, as the actions of internal community organizations seek to avoid or delay the entrance of the coronavirus (Tabea Casique, Amnesty International Americas, 2020). For instance, a ‘Community Monitoring Committee’ and community rounds are safeguarding the isolation of the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation (GTANW) in Peru, to limit its contact with the virus (Shampion Noningo, PGRT, 2020). In Sibundoy, Colombian Amazon, a “guardia indigena” (indigenous guard) has registered and disinfected vehicles that seek to enter the territory, and enforced health measures such as quarantines for newcomers. However, governments have not only denied support to these organizations—e.g. by not providing bioprotective gear—but have actively violated these autonomic responses, even during a sanitary emergency. For instance, in Loreto, the Peruvian Navy disrespected and questioned the legitimacy of an guardia indigena that was overseeing the territory of 74 communities of Kichwa, Murui-Muinane, Arabela and Maijuna ethnicities. Therefore, leaders like the Vice-President of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), demand that state officials respect indigenous self-defense mechanisms, and always coordinate with federative community authorities—including to distribute food and medicine.
Moreover, COVID-19 reveals some of the challenges to autonomy in contemporary times. Indigenous leaders have been encouraging communities to turn to the chacras (indigenous agricultural systems[ii]) and the forest to avoid the virus. But the possibility of self-sufficiency within the territories has been weakened, as my fieldwork with young leaders in the School of Political Training of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC) demonstrates. One of the school’s activities consisted in comparing a traditional chacra with a contemporary one. As a rule, the former had a wide diversity of crops, with different nutritional purposes. Contrastingly, the latter had a reduced number of staple and marketable crops. This was similar in Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, another site of my fieldwork, where widespread mining is also threatening fishing due to mercury poisoning. This happens in other parts of the basin as well. Therefore, the reports of recent disruptions to commercial circuits for small-scale agriculture due to COVID-19 (ILC America Latina, 2020) only add up to existing threats to self-sufficiency and food security (i.e. fish poisoning and a move to marketable crops).
The possibilities of self-sufficiency and food sovereignty are very diverse in the over five thousand Amazonian communities. But, in the context of COVID-19, the increasing connectivity and reliance on external resources have become a challenge for them. Isolation measures can also put communities at risk of hunger, and external social and medical assistance can increase the exposure and even be a vector of the disease. Moreover, the prominence of the Amazon river as a means of communication and for circuits of trade, makes it a potential route of contagion for riverbank communities. As a Wampis leader states, “COVID is the biggest demonstration of how interconnected we are.” (PGRT, 2020)
The pandemic has further revealed some meanings and tensions between human/individual and collective rights in indigenous struggles. Scholars argue that collective rights often collide with the projects of homogenizing liberal states and with understandings of human rights as individual and universal (Ortiz, 2010; Jung, 2003). But indigenous leaders’ condemnation of the inaction and lack of health services provided by the states can be understood as a violation to the individual right to health. Defending individual human rights is also common for COICA and its member organizations. They have been moving to that framework mainly in response to the increasing threats to the individual lives of indigenous activists that oppose to extractive projects—but also due to the preferred rhetoric of donors and allied organizations.
However, it is important to recognize this defense of the right to health rather as a component of survival, in its deeply interconnected physical and cultural dimensions. The arrival of an epidemic to the Amazon has been a reminder of how colonization brought “diseases and social disruption (which) prompted a demographic collapse unmatched in the history of the world.” (Hecht and Corburn, 2010: 3). So, leaders fear history repeating itself, with another genocide—or ethnocides—approaching. As health networks explain, structural racism and neoliberal policies have put indigenous populations at a higher risk in Amazon countries. The complete lack of state attention, they argue, violates the right to health of populations with already lower life expectancies and higher mortality rates. Further, the inexistent measures on behalf of the states to address this pandemic in the Amazon adds up to a lack (or inexistence) of instruments like ICU beds and ventilators, and the limited possibilities of emergency evacuations—due to the communities’ remoteness and lack of means of transportation.
Consequently, the most dramatic possibility considering COVID-19 is the disappearance of certain peoples, in physical and cultural ways. For instance, the Siekopai nation was one of the first to report cases. With a population of less than a thousand, they are risking extinction. In the case of the Waorani, their weaker immunological memory (due to their more recent contact with the wider population), makes it difficult for them to successfully confront the disease. Not to mention the heightened risks to the peoples living in voluntary isolation, for whom the arrival of the pandemic could be disastrous. But in addition to the physical risks, COVID-19 represents a significant threat to cultural survival, particularly because of the age group that it impacts the most. While politicians in other parts of the world have seen COVID-19’s impact on the elderly as a reason not to take strong actions, in the Amazon this is a reason for special concern and immediate action. In indigenous communities, elders are spiritual guides, they represent the peoples’ memory and embody their knowledges. For instance, considering a recent COVID-19 death, a Waorani leader explains the importance of the Pikenani—elders/wise men/traditional authorities:
“When a Pikenani dies, we feel deep pain as a nation… we lose the territory, we lose culture, we lose ancestral knowledge… we lose everything. Because they are like books, they are of utmost importance for the history of Waorani peoples… they are the knowers of the territory. Without them, the youth cannot confront (threats)… they have aided (us) in confronting disease, oil exploitation and extractive companies… When one of them dies we are left off weak, because there is no strength, no knowledge, no forest spirit, that spirit that has accompanied us in the defense of the territory.” (Opi Nenquimo, Comunicacion CONFENIAE, 2020).
Participants in my broader research often discuss how the inter-generational transmission of ancestral knowledges[iii] has been weakened in recent years, with elders no longer being willing or able to pass them on to younger generations. The reasons behind this respond to a multitude of factors, related to cultural genocide, colonization and colonial policy (Simpson, 2004) and to a historical devaluation of indigenous knowledges. Even so, the loss of elders during the pandemic truly represents a loss of environmental/territorial knowledge—that is fundamental in confronting global challenges like climate change (Blackman & Veit, 2018; Lu et al, 2010).
Moreover, responses to the pandemic illustrate how the rights to health, and education, are collectively practiced and held. COICA leaders explain that this has also been an opportunity to recover or innovate with ancestral health practices and medicinal plants—especially where the detection and monitoring of cases has been nonexistent (AIA, 2020). For instance, indigenous communities in the Bolivian Amazon have collected “Jungle Remedies” for COVID-19-related ailments, arguing that practices of collective care are necessary to ensure minimal conditions of health and nutrition. Similarly, in Brazil, Ashaninka communities have recovered a tradition for each family to have a house deeper into the forest, to isolate those who have been affected with the disease. In addition, the cultural inadequacy of governmental messages during the pandemic has highlighted the need of intercultural education and communication. For instance, the “stay at home” slogan somehow lacks meaning in some indigenous contexts where people commonly share all spaces. In many communities, the lack of sanitary infrastructure can make advices like washing hands constantly impractical. Thus, indigenous organizations are designing their own communicational campaigns. These use different indigenous languages and emphasize culturally specific practices and messages like “stay in your community/territory.”
These responses to the pandemic portray an approach that can encompass, rather than separate, individual and collective rights. The different rights described above are all part of indigenous paradigms of Good Living or a Full Life. In the words of Robert, a COICA leader, these paradigms represent the possibility to “freely develop our culture… in our territory… to develop our own traditional and spiritual knowledge systems… to have our own education, intercultural… (to) have our own health (systems), intercultural… to live collectively.” (personal communication, 2019)
Elsewhere, I argue that COICA’s political practices are founded on integral territorial ontologies, or common conceptions of territories as indivisible entities that encompass multiple relationships not only between humans and nature, but also between the non-human elements of the latter. This builds on the work of scholars like Marisol de la Cadena (2015) or Mario Blaser (2014), who study ethno-territorial struggles and the political participation of more-than-human beings. Their studies of ontological politics (of specific ethnic groups) facilitates an understanding of political practices that constitute a defense of life and relational ontologies (Escobar, 2015). I expand on these observations by referring to multi-scale and multi-ethnic politics in the Amazon basin[iv], and to account for the wholeness of territories as life worlds—where humans and nature are not ontologically separated, and neither are ‘natural’ and supranatural elements. Further, this approach gains renewed significance in the context of COVID-19.
Multiple sources have referred to how the pandemic lockdown is “helping” to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. As Hultgren (2020) finds, social media posts have celebrated the return of nature amidst the human quarantine—a popular tweet even read: “Coronavirus is the Earth’s vaccine. We are the virus.” But other than enforcing dangerous eco-fascism (also as Hultgren notes) these sources have completely rendered invisible the socio-environmental lived reality in the Amazon basin.
Not only has deforestation increased, but the quarantine and the pandemic have been an opportunity for armed miners and loggers to forcibly enter the territories, or for states to justify more widespread extractivism (ILC America Latina, 2020). COICA’s Coordinator and Vice-Coordinator have noted that mining and extractivism have intensified during this emergency, often displacing indigenous peoples and threatening their lives. Leaders from several organizations explain that extractive activities (i.e. oil extraction, mining, logging and extensive agriculture) have also been vectors of COVID-19 for Amazonian communities (Comunicacion CONFENIAE, 2020; AIA, 2020). This has prompted indigenous leaders to make public demands to the governments of the region to stop extractivism. Meanwhile, since early in the sanitary emergency, the Ecuadorian Amazon has been experiencing its largest oil spill in 15 years, which further compromises the food sovereignty of affected communities. And while there have been some actions to address these issues, a noteworthy law to prohibit the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the Colombian Amazon has been rejected.
Territories are deeply interconnected with claims for autonomy and rights. This essay has illustrated how the dramatic impacts of the pandemic for indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin cannot be disconnected with broader impacts (i.e. ecological, cultural, political) that indigenous peoples and territories are currently experiencing. In the interviews of my broader research, all leaders expressed that territories represent nourishment, medicine and spirituality, and are the space where indigenous peoples can fully practice their culture and lifeways. They represent the possibility of perpetuating the vitality of indigenous cultures, and even safeguarding human rights. I have argued that under the perspective of Amazon-wide indigenous politics, concerns such as forest conservation, food security or human rights cannot be separated: they are all part of the defense of the territories. Therefore, responses to the challenges that COVID-19 poses need to consider all aspects of this defense of life as interconnected. It is not possible to address this pandemic solely as a health emergency. It is a political issue, connected with indigenous autonomy and self-determination. It is connected to the exploitation of land and the territory. It is connected to the rights of indigenous peoples to continue to exist and exercise their cultures.
[i] Although, due to the availability of information, events in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Brazil are cited most.
[ii] “Chacra” is common in Ecuador and Peru. In Colombia, synonyms are chagra or conuco. These systems acquire different names in indigenous languages, although their form and symbolism are similar in many Amazonian cultures.
[iii] “Ancestral” is the preferred term for indigenous organizations to denote their own, cultural knowledges.
[iv] As the analyses of these scholars have thus far been limited to a single ethnic group and/or scale of analysis. My analysis, in contrast, shows how ontological politics become relevant at four different scales of indigenous political organization including the Amazon-regional scale.
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Sylvia Cifuentes is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She was recently a Visiting Instructor at Pitzer College, teaching Social Movements in the Global South. Her dissertation research focuses on the ontological and epistemic aspects of multi-scale and multi-ethnic indigenous climate change politics in the Amazon basin.