Despite constant pleas and proposals from indigenous leaders and their national and international allies, the government still has not approved a plan to protect indigenous peoples, especially those in the Amazon, almost two months after the Covid-19 pandemic struck Peru.

However, on Day 53 of the emergency (7 May) in response to efforts by the Inter American Human Rights Commission (CIDH), the National Human Rights Coordinator (CNDDHH) and the Indigenous Peoples Commission of the national Congress, a meeting was held between representatives of the national Amazonian indigenous organization (AIDESEP) and representatives of the ministries of health, culture and development and social Inclusion. This resulted in some concrete promises.

As we have written previously, from the moment the Covid-19 pandemic reached South America indigenous peoples and their allies have been warning that history has shown the particular vulnerability of indigenous peoples to imported diseases.

Amazonian indigenous leaders have responded to the threat by isolating their communities from the outside world. They have voiced their concerns and their needs to national, regional and local authorities. And, together with their allies, they have presented detailed proposals for the kinds of policies required to defend their rights, in ways that take into account their vulnerabilities and cultural differences, including those of peoples in voluntary isolation.

Up till now these efforts had been met by vague promises and evasive statements from the ministry of culture, whose remit is to represent the needs and demands of indigenous peoples to the state. Meanwhile, government authorities at the regional and local levels have sought to implement some health and financial projects designed for urban areas for indigenous communities. But these have failed to take into account cultural difference. They have tended to bypass indigenous leaders, violate community isolation measures and, in some cases, even ignore national protocols and so serve as vectors for contagion.

On 5 May the congressional commission dealing with indigenous peoples met virtually with the Culture Minister Sonia Guillén, seeking clear answers and commitments from the government about measures to defend indigenous peoples. Technical difficulties affecting the fluidity of the dialogue enabled the minister to continue avoiding any clear definition or commitment.

The same day, however, the National Human Rights Commission, together with national indigenous leaders, met with the vice-minister for public health to seek information about national health policies and generate some form of coordination. The vice-minister explained that the ministry had developed and was beginning to implement an action plan for indigenous peoples in the Loreto region. He added that similar plans were being developed for the indigenous peoples in the wider Amazon area and indeed for indigenous peoples in general.

Indigenous leaders urged immediate implementation of all three plans and the formation of a multisectoral commission including representatives from the ministries of culture, health, education, agriculture, the environment and energy and mines and those of indigenous organisations.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission has weighed in on this debate by recommending that governments guarantee the right of indigenous peoples to health with an intercultural, gender and intergenerational focus; ensure the participation of indigenous peoples in the formulation and implementation of public policies affecting them; respect the principles of equity and non-discrimination; abstain from promoting legislative initiatives and authorising extractive projects in or around indigenous territories; and take strict measures to protect the rights of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation.

On 7 May, government officials announced that 420,000 face masks, food, medicines and rapid tests would be provided to Amazonian indigenous communities. They confirmed that the promised Loreto Plan would be up and running by 14 May and would involve the upgrading of health posts in indigenous communities. The plan, they said, will subsequently be extended to the remaining Amazonian regions and AIDESEP will be represented in the Covid-19 Command for the Amazon. The minister of health promised to hire 40 graduates from AIDESEP’s training program as indigenous health technicians.

There are some 6,000 indigenous people caught by the emergency who are outside their communities, either in neighboring towns or regional capitals. AIDESEP has proposed to the ministry of culture that they be provided with food and housing until such time as the pandemic ends and they can return to their communities.

Indigenous representatives at the meeting made clear that they did not want more documentation and bureaucracy and expected immediate results. They said they would be alert as to whether promises are kept.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Trompeteros himself (who we mentioned last week) and another 15 persons who traveled with him distributing food parcels along the Corrientes River are confirmed to have been infected with Covid-19 and are now in quarantine in the town of Napo. Regional health authorities are organising a team to bring medicines and protective gear and undertake selective testing in the 20 communities potentially affected by their visits.

In Iquitos, capital of the Loreto region, the hospitals have collapsed owing to the large number of Covid-19 cases. In the very centre of the so-called ‘lungs of the planet’, patients have been dying for lack of oxygen, leading the local Catholic Church to issue a nationwide appeal for funds to buy and install an oxygen plant in the city. This was oversubscribed in a matter of hours and the government has transported the plant to the city by air. Also, in response to the crisis, the minister of health flew in with 200 medical volunteers and tons of equipment to support the efforts of local personnel, many of whom have died or are in a state of exhaustion.