Since Peru’s indigenous peoples, especially those in the Amazon, are amongst the most vulnerable sectors of the population, they are taking a combination of measures to defend themselves against the spread of COVID-19.
The virus is still concentrated in the national and regional capitals, but is spreading to rural areas such as Amazonia. The city of Iquitos, for example, has the highest numbers of infections after Lima and Piura.
Some indigenous peoples live in voluntary isolation in remote areas for whom even a common cold or influenza can prove fatal. For those in variable contact with other communities and urban areas, health levels and immune systems are generally low because of poor nutrition levels, the high incidence of malaria and dengue, limited access to potable drinking water and adequate sewerage facilities, high levels of contamination from gold mining and oil exploitation, and the lack of access to health services. Over 60% of communities lack a health post and many communities are from six to eight hours or up to three days distance by river from the nearest hospital.
Blockades have been established along roads and rivers. Entrance to or exit from communities and territories is prohibited and enforced by community self-defence organisations. Indigenous leaders are asking the state security forces to respect and reinforce these measures and, especially, control the movements of illegal actors, such as drug traffickers and gold miners. They are also asking the Ministry of Culture to produce and transmit information in indigenous languages about the virus and measures to prevent infection.
Voluntary isolation and the return to subsistence survival also presents its own challenges. The closure of traffic along roads and rivers is limiting the ability of those communities more dependent on trade to sell their surplus or buy essential goods. It also limits the access of the seriously ill to medical services owing to the lack of transport services and petrol. Thus, indigenous leaders are asking the authorities to establish health protocols to govern the entry and exit of people in cases of emergency.
The national government is implementing emergency financial support for the most vulnerable sectors of the population, including the financial bonus payable during the emergency. It is also transferring 200 million soles to municipal governments for emergency relief.
Indigenous leaders are requesting that, in the case of their communities, this support also take the form of a basic complementary basket of goods to be distributed to each community or territorial organisation through a decentralised system. This would avoid the need for outsiders to enter indigenous areas or for indigenous families to have to travel to nearby cities.
AIDESEP, the national Amazonian indigenous organization which incorporates nine regional affiliates, has launched an appeal. It is offering collaboration and resources at the national, regional and local levels.
Meanwhile, extractive businesses continue their activities on or near indigenous territories. In many cases they are employing indigenous workers who are now unable to return to their communities. A case in point is the palm oil plantation company Ocho Sur P., whose illegal activities we have reported on in the recent past. It continues to operate without restrictions under the protection of Supreme Decree No. 044-2020-PCM which allows economic actors who form part of the food chain to continue to operate during the COVID-19 emergency.