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The Indigenous World 2021: Indigenous Youth: their role in protecting of their communities

Indigenous youth are aware that the world and its regions are going through a time of change marked, on the one hand, by key actors committed to respecting human rights and, on the other, by current movements ranged against the implementation of those rights.

The global situation in which Indigenous Peoples find themselves as a result of COVID-19 has specific features that differ from those of the general population, mainly due to geographical, cultural and historical conditions and contexts which, in turn, are different in each of the seven socio-cultural regions in which the world's Indigenous Peoples live.

It is important to remember that despite historical efforts to achieve recognition of the individual and collective human rights of Indigenous Peoples, they continue to live in a situation of particular vulnerability. Indigenous Peoples have demonstrated their resilience, mainly due to their own community processes and their lands and territories. Indigenous youth from different regions of the world have made great efforts to incorporate their perspectives into dialogues and policy agendas as a priority. In the current context of social and health emergency, there is a visible lack of progress in eradicating poverty and hunger and in promoting peace and justice in the world, to name just two of the Sustainable Development Goals. We must therefore demand real commitment from states to meet the objectives to which they have signed up.

When the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 became known, governments were reluctant to believe that the virus might reach their countries and that it might even reach the Indigenous territories which is why, in regions such as Africa, Latin America and Asia, many of the measures taken by states were slow and late to be implemented. The Indigenous population’s need were covered largely by their own organisations and traditional authorities.

Addressing the situation of Indigenous Peoples during the current pandemic posed a great challenge, largely due to a lack of information and misinformation on what COVID-19 is. In a general context in which Indigenous Peoples were forced to improvise, the participation of youth was therefore paramount.

A little context

The pandemic affected Indigenous youth in many ways and they expressed their concerns about health issues (means available to prevent COVID-19, mental health, health care for the elderly, importance of traditional medicine), education (access to technologies to guarantee the right to education), social security, food security, increased violence (gender violence, violence in the territories, peace processes), climate change and effective information.

The emergency situation for Indigenous Peoples increased as the virus progressed through their communities, leading to the emergence of common strategies aimed at better coping with the health crisis. Indigenous Peoples are governed by their own system of ancestral values, which is why in this time of emergency they have insisted on the need to recover community values such as solidarity, reciprocity, cooperation and mutual aid.

Indigenous youth were of great importance in how Indigenous communities faced up to the pandemic. They were responsible for promoting prevention messages within the communities, as well as for searching for and collecting disaggregated data from Indigenous Peoples in terms of cases of infection, health impacts, economic impacts and gender violence, etc. This was all due to their knowledge, skills and professionalisation, which enabled them to make use of alternative tools such as the promotion and strengthening of community radio for the transmission of prevention messages and collaboration between different communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic should not only be understood as an emergency health issue. It is important that special consideration be given to the vulnerable situation of Indigenous Peoples, who are the most affected by the denialist policies of many countries, clearly reflecting an existing institutional racism.

Information and communication

Since the formation of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus (GIYC), Indigenous youth have faced many challenges and barriers, such as language, access to full and effective participation in decision-making spaces, and even very often a rejection of their participation; however, this has all allowed them to look for ways to break down barriers of inequality. This is why Indigenous youth from different regions of the world have sought to implement proposals at the local, national, regional and global levels, including dialogue with international organisations such as the Special Envoy on issues related to the pandemic.

Indigenous youth have promoted the dissemination of prevention messages within communities. and were largely responsible for searching for and collecting disaggregated data from Indigenous Peoples in terms of cases of infection, health impacts, economic impacts and gender violence, etc.

The youth were undoubtedly instrumental in organising key prevention and health promotion messages in Indigenous languages and organising webinars with the participation of youth from other regions, which provided an opportunity to exchange knowledge, experiences and local strategies. In Latin America, young people were involved in developing monitoring tools for digital mapping of communities  aimed at documenting cases of infection and deaths, work for which they received recognition.[1]

These collective efforts made it possible to establish a dialogue and work programmes with some international agencies and organisations that resulted in the development of affirmative actions such as the creation of platforms and cooperation between different contexts aimed at addressing information gaps in Indigenous languages, such as the Indigenous COVID-19 platform[2] and Translations4ourNations[3] where one can access materials and where Indigenous youth have participated voluntarily to create content, audio materials, brochures, podcasts, videos and so on in order to contribute to and support other sister peoples.

Health and traditional medicine

In 2020, however, they had to deal with an invisible enemy that reached out into every corner of the world. Wherever it passed, it caused fear and anguish, and it exacerbated inequalities, taking lives and histories in a very short time. The coronavirus pandemic left its mark everywhere, and it was no different for Indigenous Peoples. The pandemic has had a serious impact on Indigenous Peoples, many lives have been lost and, with these, a part of their languages, their cultures, their ancestral wisdom and traditional knowledge has died.

The Indigenous youth have been upset to see the situation of their communities, fundamentally due to the state’s failure to implement policies of prevention, promotion and recovery of the health of our peoples.

It is important to recognise that traditional medicine is a fundamental part of health and disease processes in Indigenous communities. COVID has many faces: for some, the disease is a bad spell, for others Mother Nature’s revenge for all the evils humankind has caused her. One safeguarding practice in many villages was not to mention the name of the virus so that they could stay healthy and safe.

Many Indigenous organisations promoted sanitary cordons to prevent the spread of the virus and sought the voluntary lockdown of their communities. In the Amazon, an attempt was made to protect peoples living in voluntary isolation. In spite of all the efforts, we can generally say that Indigenous youth experienced feelings of stress, anxiety and fear.

While Indigenous youth have tried to implement different strategies, technological gaps have resulted in different ways of acting in the regions. Nevertheless, as young people, social media and apps have been important elements of communication with the aim of developing short videos, contests and other activities to strengthen identity and traditional knowledge, and thus improve mental health care.  In regions such as the Arctic, the Pacific, North America and Latin America, webinars were held with the participation of older leaders. For example, Rosalina Tuyuc from Guatemala shared messages with the Indigenous youth, to whom she said:

We are probably afraid of what is happening but each of us is a witness to this whole era, where time invites us to come to a halt, with the strength of fire, air, Mother Earth and with the inner strength that we have retained however often we have been humiliated and despised, however often they have been unable to recognise our great knowledge, which dates from thousands of years ago.[4]

She said this in reference to what we as youth know of the resistance of our peoples as well as the background of reports on self-harm and suicide among Indigenous youth.[5]

We cannot forget how inequalities affect Indigenous Peoples in particular. According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB),[6] young people in developing countries are as likely to die from the pandemic as people over 60 in a rich country.  It is important to note the lack of official statistical data on the situation of Indigenous Peoples during the pandemic, the lack of protective equipment, diagnostic tests and vaccines and, more generally, the lack of government work plans to support the protection of Indigenous lives.

It is also important to recognise that mechanisms such as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, the Indigenous Peoples' Major Group for Sustainable Development and Indigenous Peoples' organisations in the different regions have all allowed spaces to open up for the participation of Indigenous youth. In this context, one of the first actions was to understand that, for Indigenous Peoples, the loss of an elder entails the loss of culture, wisdom and age-old knowledge; “we support each other mentally, culturally and spiritually”[7] was one of the messages that has been replicated through the collective videos of Indigenous youth the world over.


Indigenous youth used virtual platforms to highlight the inequalities created by virtual education, the accelerated impoverishment of communities and the increased transmission of infection without access to health systems, demonstrating that voluntary lockdown was a privilege for some and a concern for others, amidst increasingly serious economic crises. Education is a right that must be guaranteed by states and, in many countries, Indigenous children and youth have not enjoyed this right because they have not had access to the Internet, or to equipment such as computers, phones or tablets to follow virtual classes.

It is also important to guarantee access to education for Indigenous children and youth by providing the necessary tools for distance learning, in close cooperation with the traditional institutions of Indigenous Peoples. It is important to think about cooperation plans that can provide guidelines to ensure a good return to schools and universities.

Social systems and social protection

The pandemic has increased social problems because the social protection that would enable Indigenous Peoples, especially those living in remote areas, to comply with the recommendations for avoiding the risk of infection has not been guaranteed by states.

In this sense, it is essential to continue working to find a more comprehensive response, in harmony with the ecological balance, and not to focus solely on economic interests because the consequences have been devastating. Scientists have warned us that the invasion of natural protected areas where zoonotic processes are taking place could cause other pandemics in the future. Existing deep social inequalities have resulted in a greater impact of the pandemic on those of us who have historically experienced racism, exclusion, compartmentalisation, classism and discrimination, all of which are interconnected with a lack of respect for fundamental human rights.

Food security

When we talk about current and future pandemic concerns, one of the main issues is undoubtedly food security and the sustainability of Mother Earth. Bodies such as the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN have called for specific measures to be taken with regard to nutrition since, if people are not well-nourished, their immune system is weakened and they have fewer defences against disease.

States must commit to adopting emergency food policies to combat hunger and the economic crisis generated by the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities. This great impact has occurred even in those communities where some of the recommended prevention and protection strategies were implemented, such as social distancing or hygiene measures but which, unfortunately, could not always be implemented in the best possible way because biosecurity materials and equipment were scarce and expensive.

In this regard, obtaining food has been a collective concern, and some responses were offered through the organisation of soup kitchens, food collection centres and the distribution of baskets of food products in order to take food to families or hospitals. This has demonstrated that solidarity as a mutual support measure should be taken into account at the next World Food Systems Summit.

Peace and security processes

Respecting the human and collective rights of Indigenous Peoples as recognised in international legal frameworks is one of the main demands of Indigenous Peoples, including respect for free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) in the prevention, development, implementation and monitoring of measures to address COVID-19.

The main call from Indigenous youth has therefore been for states, governments and UN agencies to work in partnership with Indigenous customary self-governance institutions, Indigenous Peoples' own organisations and networks and their communities, in accordance with the UN Declaration and ILO Convention 169.

During the pandemic, Indigenous Peoples were quarantined but our enemies were not. In Brazil and Colombia, to mention just two countries, there was an increase in invasions of Indigenous territories by loggers and miners, consequently resulting in the murder of Indigenous leaders. Indigenous youth played an important role in defending their territories and they used social media to report actions and thus obtain protection for their territories.

Climate Change

The issue of climate change continues to be a priority on the agenda of Indigenous youth, especially when many of the consequences and state policies to mitigate it continue to affect our peoples and put their survival at risk. In addition to the impact of climate change, there are also the invasions of territories, all of which affect food production, and for which reason Indigenous Peoples have implemented strategies that include the creation of communal gardens and monitoring of their territories. These strategies continue as natural disasters keep on increasing, for example hurricanes in the Caribbean or earthquakes and forest fires, which have all made this pandemic more difficult.


The COVID-19 pandemic should not only be understood as a matter of emergency health care, because Indigenous Peoples know that there is an intersectoral relationship that is reflected in differentiated impacts, in social, economic and food aspects, para-militarisation, armed conflicts and violations of individual and collective rights that have added to other impacts, such as climate change, natural disasters, and other health pandemics, making 2020 one of the most difficult years for Indigenous Peoples.

All aid must be distributed equally based on the needs of the population and states must work in partnership with Indigenous Peoples in a context of cultural relevance.

It is therefore essential to recognise the role of Indigenous youth and that their full and effective participation is very important to ensure structural change in public policies. It is essential to include Indigenous Peoples' representatives, leaders and customary institutions in the bodies providing emergency assistance in order to ensure the health of their communities.

Young people are not the future, we are agents of change here and now, each and every day.


Jessica Vega Ortega, is a young Indigenous woman belonging to the Mixtec people of Mexico. She is currently co-chair of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus (GIYC).

Rayanne Cristine Máximo França is an Indigenous youth activist from Brazil who is part of the Indigenous Youth Network of Brazil.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] Coordenação das Organizações Indígenas da Amazônia Brasileira. “COIAB e IPAM vencem prêmio Empreendedor Social do Ano com aplicativo de monitoramento.” 7 December 2020. https://coiab.org.br/conteudo/coiab-e-ipam-vencem-pr%C3%AAmio-empreendedor-social-do-ano-com-aplicativo-de-1607389387957x892779126617014300

[2] Mariaca, Gabriel. “Cumplimos nuestros objetivos. Plataforma Indígena Regional frente al COVID-19.” [Meeting our objectives. Regional Indigenous COVID-19 platform]. 18 December 2020. https://indigenascovid19.red/

[3] Carrillo, Sitlali. “Huichol.” Translations4OurNations. https://www.translations4ournations.org/translation/huichol/

[4] FILAC, Red de Jóvenes Indígenas de America Latina y El Caribe, and Foro Indígena de Abya Yala, "Aporte de las Juventudes Indígenas de Abya Yala ante la Pandemia Actual: Diálogos sobre salud mental.” [Contribution of Indigenous Youth of Abya Yala to the Current Pandemic. Discussions on mental health.] April 2020.


[5] United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “La autolesión y el suicidio entre los jóvenes.” [Self-harm and Suicide among Youth]. 2015. https://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/2015/concept-notes/youth-self-harm-suicide-es.pdf

[6] Jabiel, Sally. “Los jóvenes en Latinoamérica son un grupo de riesgo ante la COVID-19” [Latin American Youth are a High-Risk Group for COVID-19]. El País, 22 January 2020. https://elpais.com/planeta-futuro/2021-01-21/los-jovenes-de-latinoamerica-grupo-de-riesgo.html#:~:text=Sin%20embargo%2C%20lo%20que%20padeci%C3%B3,Interamericano%20de%20Desarrollo%20(BID).

[7] Victor Anthony Lopez-Carmen. 2020. “Global Indigenous Youth Leaders on Corona Virus (COVID-19).” Uploaded on 28 March 2020. YouTube Video, 2:20 min. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPSqEJ-YJrk

Tags: Youth, Global governance



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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