Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the one government agency that has consistently paid attention to the situation, the needs and demands of indigenous peoples has been the Defensoría del Pueblo. It has overseen the actions of the state in its response and has frequently made specific recommendations. A number of actions, just in the last two weeks, illustrate this.
On 23 July, representatives of the Awajún and Wampí communities in the Condorcanqui province of Amazonas region presented a complaint to the Defensoría claiming that “deficient” organisation on the part of the Ministry for Development and Social Inclusion (Midis) had contributed significantly to the spread of infection amongst the communities. In distributing government subsidies to needy families by bringing them all together in one place, Midis had contributed significantly to the spread of infection amongst the communities.
With support from local leaders and authorities – along with social, medical and legal specialists – these indigenous peoples threatened to present a constitutional demand for protection from the ministry and its activities. Further, they sought the Defensoria’s support for various demands: that the National Health Institute undertake an epidemiological study; that the state guarantee food security in the communities; that an oxygen plant be installed; and that 240 indigenous health promotors be contracted and given the necessary protective equipment.
In response, on 26 July, the Defensoría called a meeting of the regional government, the regional director of health, the Condorcanqui and Bagua Health Network, and the ministries of health, culture and development and social Inclusion to discuss the problems and propose solutions. It became clear that most money spent had gone on buying cleaning equipment and hiring personnel, leaving little to cover transport to the communities. No health personnel had been hired because there were no applicants. The regional health authorities lacked information about the rate or location of infections in the communities.
The Defensoría came up with a number of recommendations, including the need to prioritise expenditures, to achieve better coordination between the Ministry of Health and the regional government, to reinforce prevention and containment, and for the Ministry of Culture to provide information about disease prevention in local languages. The Defensoría thus showed it had the capacity to respond quickly and to bring together often competing and blame-shifting government agencies from different levels of government to discuss problems jointly and develop solutions.
Then, when the then prime minister, Pedro Cateriano, presented his cabinet of ministers to the national Congress for a vote of confidence on 3 August, he announced that to reactivate the economy community consultation would be reduced by six months. The Defensoría was quick to respond that “according to the current regulations the prior consultation process is limited to 120 days, that is, four months”.
Further, Alicia Abanto, head of the environmental and indigenous peoples programme at the Defensoría, argued that “the difficulties that prior consultation has had have not been linked to the time taken but due to its inadequate implementation” and that the Defensoría would continue to be vigilant in the protection of indigenous rights.
The Defensoría thus stands out in its capacity to take the initiative, call state agencies to account for their actions, and speak out in defence of human and environmental rights. The pandemic has starkly revealed a state structure that has shown itself incompetent and bureaucratic in providing timely and quality services to its citizens. Citizens’ rights are frequently ignored and abused and the Ministry of Culture, which is charged with promoting government services to indigenous and First Nation peoples, has proved particularly inept.