Indigenous realities in a COVID-19 world: Around the globe

Reassessing the situation for Indigenous People in a COVID-19 world

As the world has experienced the outbreak and rapid spread of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic over the first quarter of 2020, IWGIA has worked to monitor how the situation has developed and the impacts the pandemic has had on Indigenous Peoples. While recognising the many threats and heightened risks for Indigenous Peoples, it is also important to note that Indigenous Peoples are responding spontaneously to the pandemic using self-determined protection mechanisms. Indigenous peoples know very well that they are at risk and highly vulnerable both to human rights violations as well as to viral infections. They have for generations learned how to protect themselves to survive and thus become strong and resilient communities.

Communities around the world have already responded to the pandemic using their customary protection practices and have taken advanced measures to seal off their villages or to retreat further into nature to avoid contact. They are proactively rising to the challenge to meet the critical need for information with radio/podcast communications disseminating COVID-19 information to their communities as well as precaution measures in Indigenous languages. Furthermore, Indigenous communities have shown strong solidarity and have actively engaged in relief support to Indigenous brothers and sisters in need.

Turning to the obvious and critical threats, IWGIA’s partners, contacts and networks from all over the world have been (and are) continuously reporting on crucial threats and issues Indigenous Peoples are facing due to their increased vulnerability and risk due to the coronavirus. “COVID-19 is devastating Indigenous communities worldwide, and it’s not only about health,” the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, José Francisco Cali Tzay, recently expressed.

Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders at increased risk

Threats posed to Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders have intensified due to increased military presence, lockdowns and restrictions on mass media communication. For instance, from early on in the global pandemic context, there have been reports on the increased targeting and assassination of Colombian activists by paramilitary groups taking advantage of state-implemented lockdown measures.

Acknowledging the severity of using the situation for such attacks, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, made an urgent call to “governments, corporations and actors including churches and human rights institutions to ensure that human right are used as the framework in analysing and responding to the COVID-19 crisis as this affects indigenous peoples”.

Unfortunately, reports of the critical situation of human rights violations of Indigenous People have not subsided, but rather have intensified. In the Philippines, President Duterte alarmed Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights Defenders in early April by ordering aggressive measures including a “shoot to kill” order to be imposed by military and police on “troublemaking” individuals and organisations, a general term directed at anyone opposing or protesting his politics, including Indigenous Peoples.

During the pandemic lockdown in the country, Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders are often cut off from their support networks and their mobility has been severely hampered due to the increased prevalence of civil, military and police checkpoints. The situation has been, and is, very dire for Indigenous Peoples defenders and activists in the Philippines. The Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) alerted IWGIA and the general public in May to the escalation of harassment and threats their members, families and allies have received since their criticism of the government’s interventions on COVID-19.

In Myanmar, the government has stepped up its militarisation efforts during the pandemic to squash civil unrest. The ongoing civil unrest across multiple regions has long-plagued Indigenous Peoples in these territories, and they are now dramatically intensified. These communities are experiencing a disturbing increase in violent crack-downs on so-called opposition groups. Additionally, human rights defenders are being continuously silenced and independent media has been shut down with more than 200 web sites have been forced offline as a means to control the spread of “fake news” and “disinformation” about the virus, though many of these sites have been sharing key reports on the violence occurring in Indigenous territories from investigative journalists

Right to information and communication

The right to access information is crucial to understanding the effects of the pandemic and the measures by which one can protect themselves, as well as to report on human rights violations, potentially ineffective government programmes or protective measures that are not reaching marginalised groups. The crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic poses new scenarios and urgent challenges for political advocacy and strategic communication in favour of Indigenous Peoples globally, but especially in Latin America, as Indigenous Peoples are forced to protect their rights without leaving their community.

The right to information is one of the five standards and recommendations states should follow regarding Indigenous Peoples, stipulated by The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The commission also calls on states to pay particular attention to the needs and differentiated impact of those measures on the human rights of historically excluded or high-risk groups, such as Indigenous Peoples.

The IACHR also urges states to refrain from introducing legislation that allows for the carrying out of extractive projects in Indigenous territories during the period the pandemic may last, given the impossibility of conducting free prior and informed consent/consultation processes. Similarly, The International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) has reported on the threat of governments and corporations working to roll back environmental safeguards and fast-tracking development projects that Indigenous Peoples have long opposed in North America.

A crucial shortcoming around the globe has been the lack of information available in local indigenous languages. A fundamental human right is to have access to information in your own language, and IWGIA has worked to support projects to produce such materials with urgent priority.

Extractive activities override Indigenous rights and health

As most of the world turns to prevention measures of social distancing and isolation, attention must be brought to the fact that that this has been an essential survival strategy for some Indigenous Peoples, which must be respected, [even if temporary as in the case of Indonesia’s Papua region.]

According to Juan Carlos Ruiz Molleda, a constitutional lawyer, Indigenous Peoples have the right to decide to close their territories and prevent third parties from entering to protect their land and people. Nevertheless, IWGIA partner organisation ONAMIAP has shared insights and reports on the continuation of extractive activities and occurrence of oil spills on Indigenous land in Peru in the midst of lockdowns. Apart from the environmental damage this continues, the presence of third parties in and near Indigenous communities increases the risk of contamination of the virus spreading into Indigenous communities. ONAMIAP also calls attention to how the virus is shedding light on the social injustices Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous women are experiencing in the country.

Extractive activities, illegal logging and the intrusion of missionaries on Indigenous lands are also threatening the health and survival of Indigenous Peoples tribes in Brazil. The election of President Jair Bolsonaro has in general inflicted major setbacks for Indigenous rights in the country. Throughout 2019 Bolsonaro drastically reduced rural healthcare services and his policies have exacerbated the critical situation Indigenous Peoples face in the country, now magnified by COVID-19. Indianara Ramires, a nurse in a Guaraní Kaiowa community, has warned that if this pandemic reaches the people in isolated villages in the Brazilian Amazons, it would mean their annihilation.

In India, several cases have also been documented, where the extractive industry has been spreading the virus among its workers:

Loss of livelihoods

Indigenous Peoples outside their communities have also suffered huge losses. Due to lockdowns many have not been able to travel back to their home communities. Further, from Peru to India, Indigenous people have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and are stranded in urban areas without shelter or food as they are not able to travel back home due to travel restrictions.

The widespread lack of food due to measures adopted to prevent the spread of the virus is affecting traditional livelihoods and is fast becoming a dangerous predicament for marginalised populations, including Indigenous Peoples. In Africa, the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 and its prevention measures, such as the closing of livestock and open markets, have threatened pastoralists.

Amid the crisis, East Africa is also experiencing a catastrophic and persistent locust invasion, destroying millions of acres of pastures and food crops. Prices in the livestock sector in West Africa have already reportedly dropped by more than 50%.

In India, the forest-dwelling Indigenous Peoples are not able to sell their non-timber forest products due to travel restrictions and closing of markets, posing a serious risk to their livelihood.

Looking forward

The full effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on Indigenous Peoples is yet to fully unfold, but the picture is bleak. The broad issues and general concerns that have been identified are reoccurring throughout the global Indigenous community and come on top of or exacerbate the present marginalised position they contend with daily. There are also cases of more local concerns, which pose a threat for Indigenous Peoples health and human rights, such the exposure of racial discrimination of “Chinese-looking” Indigenous groups in north India, to the lack of proper sewer systems in Inuit communities in Inuit Nunaat, Canada. Simply put, precautionary measures to address the virus must not come at the expense of human rights and must respect the Indigenous way of life.

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.

Indigenous World

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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