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Intensified injustice in light of COVID-19: Perspectives from a Peruvian Indigenous women’s organisation

Our partners at ONAMIAP (Organización Nacional de Mujeres Indígenas Andinas y Amazónicas del Perú/National Organisation of Andean and Amazon Indigenous Women of Peru) have taken a proactive stance in responding to major issues and challenges raised by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Through their work they highlight major societal questions and shed light on core issues that hinder Indigenous Peoples from having equal opportunities for a healthy life. They call for global awareness on the failure of the current system to protect the most vulnerable under crisis. 

In their 12th newsletter, released on 31 March 2020, ONAMIAP notes that: “In Peru, the coronavirus has clearly shown us the social injustices that exist in the country, where women and Indigenous Peoples are vulnerable.”1

Health and inequality 

The communities in Peru that ONAMIAP serves have expressed great concern regarding the critical lack of, and insufficient, health care resources they regularly encounter, especially in light of the intense strain the COVID-19 pandemic continues to place across the region.  

To gain deeper insight into these issues and to better understand the realities these communities face, IWGIA spoke with Melania Canales Poma, Director of ONAMIAP, who shared some key concerns experienced in these communities: 

“There really is no quality health service. They might have a rural medical centre in some places – in some places there is not even that – and if there is, they do not even have doctors; they do not even have the materials; [they do not even have] supplies… They [the health services] are not equipped.” 

Globally, Indigenous people struggle with fundamental societal inequalities in their everyday life. These inequalities become glaringly apparent when Indigenous Peoples are asked to follow basic prevention measures. Due to the lack of material goods, information and resources, these communities are unable to follow prevention measures to slow down the spread of COVID-19 – including hand washing. Currently, only 67.3% of Indigenous Peoples have access to a water network, almost 20% less than the non-indigenous population. 

ONAMIAP continues to raise this concern, and on 2 April 2020 shared: “We alert the State to the urgency that the sanitary measures that the Executive has been implementing be accompanied by health policies that guarantee, mainly, the human right to health and to a life worthy of all people and peoples”.3  

ONAMIAP stated that there are major deficiencies in the implemented national health policies in Peru, pointing out specifically the lack of intercultural approaches respecting Indigenous ancestral practices and knowledge. This is a major barrier for guaranteeing their fundamental human right to health. Water is acknowledged and globally recognised as a human right. Key international duty bearers, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), consider good health a human right, creating a legal obligation on states to ensure that adequate access to healthcare without discrimination is provided.4

Access to adequate information, especially in local languages, has also been a critical issue, and here ONAMIAP has stepped in and consciously revised and re-directed their work focusing on spreading information on COVID-19 to their communities. Simultaneously, they have linked this critical framework to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and fundamental human rights.

  • Onamiap Flyer1
  • Onamiap Flyer2
  • Onamiap Flyer3

Extractive industries ignoring the rights, and compromising the safety, of Indigenous Peoples 

Health remains a critical issue that Indigenous communities face. Besides the direct threat of sickness, ongoing extractive activities on protected Indigenous lands during the quarantine has been raised and continues to worry the members of ONAMIAP.  

Taking advantage of the lockdown and crisis, reports from local communities and organisations indicate extractive activities have continued, with support from the government, to maintain their “most critical operations”.5 Access to water is a key concern for Indigenous communities, and the consequences of river contamination from runoff and tailings compounds these issues and results in an even more dire circumstance for Indigenous Peoples during the crisis.  

Contamination has led to people suffering from heavy-metal diseases that compromises their health, putting them at greater risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from the direct impact on communities’ health, the contamination of rivers, wetlands and streams also damages the ecosystem, thus diminishing fish populations. As a result, communities face increased food insecurity, leading to increased malnutrition and compromising their ability to be self-sufficient in securing food for their families.  

"Additionally, we are currently in quarantine and we stay in our homes, but nevertheless, the extractive companies continue to work. They keep people moving around. They continue working ... This is a concern, as there have been cases in some mining centres – coronavirus cases. We are extremely worried about this situation and what may happen,” Melania Canales Poma explained. 

On 18 March 2020, in the midst of the national "obligatory social isolation", there was an oil spill in Piura, northwest Peru – which serves as one of many examples of ongoing exploitation on Indigenous lands. 6

Many Indigenous Peoples are trying to close off their communities from outsiders, however ONAMIAP points out that this measure is rendered useless if the state allows transnational companies to continue operating near or within their territories.7 The continuation of carrying out extractive activities in Indigenous territories during this pandemic poses a great threat to the population. In the long-term, such activities will continue to detrimentally affect the delicate ecosystems that are already being strained; in the short-term, they bring a higher risk of contamination to Indigenous communities as workers invade Indigenous territories.  

We must reconsider and question our current relationship to nature 

Over the course of the interview, Melania described how the environment and nature are changing and responding to the lockdown.  

She describes how large birds are re-appearing in Lima, the sky seems bluer and clouds seem whiter and fresher.  

“This gives a feeling that mother nature, our mother earth, is crying out to us to leave her alone. May we be in solidarity with her. That we do not destroy mother earth by accumulating wealth, for the benefit of a few,” she said. 

Her message to humanity is clear and inspiring: “I think that the human being has to think about it [mother earth]. Instead of destroying it. Instead of polluting it. Instead of accumulating wealth, selfishly, individually. That is, unfortunately, what this capitalist system has brought us. And this is not development. It is not development at all. This is inequality. Let us take into account our ancestral knowledge and knowledge of how to take care – take care of ourselves and take care of mother earth.”  

IWGIA firmly believes that it is essential to hear, recognise and respect the insights and world-views of Indigenous Peoples. We strive to promote, protect and defend Indigenous Peoples and their rights now more than ever, as the COVID-19 pandemic pressures all systems and particularly affects Indigenous Peoples and other marginalised groups worldwide. 

Notes and references 

  1. ONAMIAP 12th newsletter. 31 March 2020: http://onamiap.org/2020/03/boletin-onamiap-al-dia-n-12/  
  2. Ibid.  
  3. ”Resistencia indígena, coronavirus y desigualdades sociales ”. ONAMIAP, 2 April 2020: http://onamiap.org/2020/04/resistencia-indigena-coronavirus-y-desigualdades-sociales/    
  4. OHCHR & WHO. ”A Human Rights-Based Approach to Health“. Accessed 20 April 2020: https://www.who.int/hhr/news/hrba_to_health2.pdf  
  5. ONAMIAP flyer, ”Empresas Mineras y Petroleras Vulneran Derechos en Cuarantena”. Accessed 20 April 2020: https://bit.ly/2yXTcOu 
  6. Op. Cit. (1); “Savia Perú derrama petróleo en mar de Cabo Blanco”. Wayka.pe, 20 March 2020: https://wayka.pe/savia-peru-derrama-petroleo-en-mar-de-cabo-blanco/ 
  7. Op. Cit. (3)

Tags: Covid-19



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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