By Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Indigenous communities play a critical role in preventing the emergence of diseases and must be involved in the response to the pandemic
For the first time in living memory, the industrialized world understands what it is to be entirely susceptible to disease, as vulnerable as indigenous peoples once were to diseases brought by outsiders who colonized our lands. As vulnerable as many indigenous peoples still are to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indigenous peoples—and other local communities and Afro-descendants—do not have the same health services or government support as those in cities, even in developed countries like Canada. The virus has ripped through Navajo communities in New Mexico and Arizona largely because of a lack of clean water. Indigenous peoples also have higher rates of chronic health conditions that make us more susceptible.
Five centuries ago, isolation was our solution. It is still our solution today. Worldwide, indigenous and local communities are shutting off roads and blocking waterways to protect our peoples. My community has declared “ubaya,” or lockdown. If COVID-19 reaches our communities, it could wipe us off the map—and it already has reached the Yanomami and Kokama Peoples of the Amazon.
Yet since the outbreak began, I have heard reports from around the world that governments are failing to respond to indigenous leaders requesting health resources—and refusing to support us in isolating ourselves.
In Brazil, the government has put the fate of uncontacted tribes in the hands of a Christian pastor with a mission to evangelize, threatening the tribes’ survival. In French Guiana, illegal miners from Brazil are pouring over the border to invade indigenous lands. In Kenya, the Maasai face potential food shortages, and lack health services, clean water, and soap and masks to protect themselves.
Many indigenous and local communities lack secure land rights, making it harder for us to close our territories to the threat. And everywhere, the pandemic is being used as an excuse to limit civil liberties and rights.
As I near the end of my tenure as UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples’ rights, I am holding my breath, knowing that so many lives—indigenous and not—are in danger. Governments have not prioritized protecting us from the health threats that so often arrive from beyond our borders. And the outcome often looks like genocide—or it is.
I implore governments to protect us because it is the right thing to do. But it is also increasingly clear that much is at stake for all humanity in helping indigenous peoples and local communities.
There is growing evidence that deforestation and biodiversity loss lead to the emergence of new diseases. And the world’s top scientists have already recognized that Indigenous Peoples and local communities are the best guardians of the world’s tropical forests and biodiversity. As stewards of our forests, we play a critical role in preventing the emergence of diseases like Avian Bird Flu, Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19.
In early January, as the world awoke to the danger posed by COVID-19, the World Economic Forum released a report that acknowledged the value of indigenous peoples’ traditional practices, which have inspired thousands of pharmaceutical products. Many of these modern medicines come from tropical rainforests. Yet these same rainforests are targeted for “economic development,” like large-scale palm-oil and soybean plantations and massive hydropower projects, that decimate our lands and our livelihoods.
I am writing these words in the hopes that those who should be our natural allies will listen: academics who know that new pandemics will emerge as forests come down; entrepreneurs who hope to use our traditional knowledge to create new medicines; conservationists who have a passion for nature but so often carve protected areas from our ancestral territories; and leaders charged with protecting biodiversity and slowing climate change.
I hope these words will inspire these allies to extend a hand to our peoples and our leaders. Involve us in your responses to the pandemic. Respect our fundamental rights to govern and protect our territories.
And I hope these words will inspire all to respect our isolation. It is our best hope of preventing COVID-19 from ravaging our communities as smallpox and other diseases once did. Should you fail to help us survive and fail to protect our rights, the cost to all of us will be unimaginable.