Owing to their historical isolation in Amazonia, indigenous peoples are highly vulnerable to common respiratory viral infections against which their immunity is weak. The introduction of these diseases amongst others from Europe in the sixteenth century is thought to have been the principal cause of the decimation of a flourishing Amazonian population estimated as much as 6 million. At approximately 2.7 million today, the indigenous population of Amazonia still has a long way to recover. According to the 2017 census, the figure in Peru is around 900,000.

According to the regional indigenous organisation, COICA, 506 indigenous peoples are at imminent risk to the pandemic, especially the 76 groups living in voluntary isolation “whose immune system is so weak that even a cold could lead to their disappearance.” COICA points out that “a pandemic of these proportions could signify a catastrophe.”

Some 7,000 people live in voluntary isolation in Peru, usually in small, itinerant bands. Failure to protect these highly vulnerable people from contagion (following forced contact) constitutes a direct threat to the right to life. The bulk of the indigenous population is distributed along rivers in the low forest as well as along penetration roads leading from the eastern slopes of the Andes. Communities within easy reach of urban centres have acquired a degree of immunity to infectious diseases, yet still lack adequate public health services.

Regionally, the advice from COICA is to establish strict control of entry and exit for indigenous territories, the suspension of tourism, and all visits from representatives of NGOs or other international cooperation bodies.

One of Peru’s largest groups, the Asháninka of the central forest region have declared their territory closed to all comers and appealed to the armed forces and civil authorities to cooperate in enforcing their ban. In their case, the threat is from organised crime involved in illegal logging, land invasion and drug trafficking.

In coordination with its own native community bases, FENAMAD, the representative organisation of the indigenous peoples of Madre de Dios, also recommends compliance with the main recommendations of preventing access to communities and for people to stay within them as a measure to prevent contagion.

ORPIO, the regional organisation for the 15 northernmost basins of the Peruvian Amazon, has issued a comprehensive contingency plan that calls for coordination with the ministries of health and culture as well as those services supervising protected areas. It calls for appropriate health messages and services, priority attention for indigenous peoples as the most neglected sector of society, measures against discrimination over participation in welfare schemes, and unreasonable work requirements during the crisis.

ORPIO is especially sensitive to discrimination. Its leader, selected as a representative at the recent meeting in Holland with the OECD over Pluspetrol’s mismanagement of its concession (as we reported last week), was widely insulted on social media for having tested positive for Coronavirus on his return. Indigenous and other networks of civil society rallied to his defence. ORPIO claims that 60% of communities have no medical posts and, where these exist, they lack medical supplies.

AIDESEP, the national indigenous organisation, supported by the Instituto de Defensa Legal (IDL), accuses the government of silence on the predicament of the indigenous peoples, especially the culture ministry’s failure (despite a favourable court ruling) to approve the creation of five reserves in Loreto and Ucayali for groups in voluntary isolation whose territories are threatened by illegal loggers.

Provision of health care is at best precarious in the indigenous communities. Health posts generally lack trained staff and supplies, and only receive occasional visits by medical personnel from regional hospitals. The sick and injured turn first to their local healers and, otherwise, make their own way to distant urban centres by river, trail and track. ORPIO has made an international appeal for money to cover the cost of fuel for motorised canoes and road transport in Loreto.

Although there are no data in Peru for previous pandemics, indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada and Australia were between 3 and 7 times more likely than the majority population to contract the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. A tropical medicine epidemiologist from the Cayetano Heredia University in Lima has warned that if the virus enters the indigenous communities, morbidity and mortality will be very great. Indigenous peoples thus need to be seen as a high-risk category.

Tuberculosis, hepatitis B, malaria and dengue are also prevalent in Amazonia. Health conditions are undermined by high levels of malnutrition and anaemia, especially amongst children, owing to their concentration in villages for administrative convenience and the depletion of fish stocks and land owing to a range of factors that disrupt indigenous livelihoods, such as the pollution caused by oil companies and mineral extractors as well as competition for resources from incoming colonists.

Health and food security for indigenous peoples are closely associated with their uncontested access to ancestral lands. This is an internationally recognised right that governments have frequently undermined by favouring third parties, leading to industrialised resource extraction such as mining, logging, oil and gas, and plantations of oil palm and soya as sources of biofuels.

Amnesty International in Peru, while acknowledging that the WHO has declared COVID-19 a pandemic, points out three areas of potential human rights concern:

  • The right to health and information for all. The ministry of health faces a serious challenge given the poor state of health services, problems of communicating relevant information in over 40 indigenous languages, and isolation in terms of geography and communications of many communities without radios or internet connection.
  • The right not to suffer discrimination for one’s origin. indigenous peoples of the forest are widely regarded as third-class citizens.
  • The rights of individuals regarding proportionate frontier and quarantine controls. Indigenous peoples’ voluntary closure of their frontiers could become de facto incarceration in cases where the virus takes hold in a particular community.

For its part, the Defensoría has also issued a statement urging regional governments to coordinate with the health ministry to develop urgent and specific plans to address weaknesses in the health services for the indigenous population of the Amazon. This would include addressing prevention and control of the virus, with guidelines that respect peoples’ cultures and involve representative organisations and their authorities.