Anthropologists specialising in the rights of Peru’s indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation in the Amazon have pointed out the similarities between their survival strategy and the national and international response to Coronavirus: self-isolation or ‘social distancing’.

Still widely regarded by society as un-civilised and potentially dangerous groups, there is little understanding or sympathy for them and how history (including forced labour, enslavement and decimation by disease) has pushed them to separate themselves permanently from the hazards of colonisation. Faced with outside threats, they have arguably made the same hard choice as that made by today’s governments and their health advisers: a tactical retreat from society into protective self-isolation.

Maritza Quispe Mamani, a lawyer working for IDL (Instituto de Defensa Legal) is highly critical of the Ministry of Culture for failing to develop a national strategy for the 5,000 or so Peruvians (probably a conservative estimate) living in isolation, as only half the reserves required have been officially approved over the last 20 years. Failure to create an extra five reserves in Loreto in 2017 has exposed groups there to contact with those working in the forestry and hydrocarbon concessions that overlay their territories, let alone illegal loggers and drug traffickers.

The impact of exploration concessions in bringing disease to the Amazon is well documented. In 1984, the Nahua of the River Mishahua, in La Convención (Cuzco), lost half their population to whooping cough and common cold following an incident with personnel of Shell who seized two Nahua and held them for a week in the base at Sepahua before finally releasing them. Six years later the first territorial reserve was created of 457,000 hectares protecting the remainder of the Nahuas and other groups in the area.

There are now five territorial reserves with over two million hectares in Ucayali, Cuzco and Madre de Dios. The Ministry of Culture distinguishes between peoples with no permanent relations with national society (or who have opted to discontinue relations) and peoples that have begun a process of initial contact.

Commenting on the impact of Covid-19 on indigenous peoples, Beatriz Huertas, an anthropologist who works for AIDESEP, describes isolation as a choice based on the indigenous peoples’ right to decide on their desired type of life and level of interaction with others, which in turn represents the right to exercise self-determination. International law prohibits forced contact and integration because of the negative effects they can have on the group’s physical integrity and survival.

Huertas is convinced it is essential to re-think interventions with these peoples given that the individual, collective and institutional deficiencies of those that implement them can have traumatic effects on peoples in isolation and endanger their future. Instead they should:

  • respect their survival strategy, prevent the spread of diseases and avoid aggression,
  • recognise formal, effective and guaranteed territorial rights, and
  • Implement preventative measures to stop the spread of infectious diseases through an effective health system.

The last 14 years have seen the appearance of national and international instruments to further the rights of people to live in isolation, but without much by way of practical effect. This is attributable to conflicting rights awarded to extractive enterprises within the indigenous reserves. The Covid-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to recognise the importance of voluntary isolation as a survival strategy for such peoples.