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‘Go Make Camps Deeper in the Forest.’ How the Amazon’s Indigenous People are Handling the Threat of the Coronavirus

11 minute read
Anderson is the founder and Executive Director of Amazon Frontlines, a nonprofit organization based in the Upper Amazon, which defends indigenous peoples' rights to land, life, and cultural survival.

A small group of young Waorani men step out of the tiny patch of secondary forest that abuts their precarious settlement here on the outskirts of Shell, a military town named after the oil company in Ecuador’s southern Amazon. The men carry a 20-foot wooden pole and wear enormous grins. “Now we can let our people know that the plague is coming and they should go make camps deeper in the forest,” they shout to me from afar, following up with the classic Waorani hoot: “queeeuuuuu, queeeuuuu, queeeuuuuu” (which means, essentially, “we’re alive, we’re badass, and we’re happy!”).

Within an hour, they had rigged an antenna to the pole and hooked up an old HF radio, tuning into the static-laden frequency that connects dozens of Waorani communities across their 2.5 million-acre rainforest territory. It was 4pm on March 17th, just two days after the Ecuadorian government had decreed a national shutdown, which included road closures, a shelter-in-place order, and a 2pm curfew. At that time, there had only been two confirmed cases of Coronavirus in Ecuador’s southern Amazon, yet the rising number of cases in the booming coastal port town of Guayaquil had led to nationwide quarantine measures.

Gilberto Nenquimo, President of the Waorani Nation, which totals roughly 6,000 hunter-harvesters across nearly 60 villages in the south-central Ecuadorian Amazon, took to the radio first: “Waorani, do you copy me? Elders, do you copy me? We are facing terrible times ahead. There is a new sickness in the world, unlike any other. It has traveled from far away China, and it has arrived here in Ecuador. It travels fast. In only months it has spread across the entire world. There are confirmed cases in the oil towns of the northern Amazon. Elders are dying across the world. In the most advanced countries, the hospitals can’t cure this disease. The bodies are piling up in Italy and the United States. Imagine the doctors here in Ecuador. They don’t have a chance. No villagers should come to the city. We are prohibiting access into our territory. No one enters. No one leaves. Do you copy me, Waorani? Do you copy me?”

Over the static, Manuela Pauchi, from the remote Waorani village of Nemonpare, said: “Yes, we copy. I dreamt about this. The Cowori (the outsiders) are doing terrible things. They are destroying the homes of the animals. Humans created this disease by killing the earth. Go make camps deeper in the forest. Drink plant medicines. Only eat wild meat and fish. That will keep us strong.”

Huddled together and leaning close to the crackling static of the radio were a handful of Waorani leaders, among them Nemonte Nenquimo, who led her people last year to a major victory against oil drilling protecting over 500,000 acres of primary rainforest. “We need to protect our elders,” she said. “We’ve been fighting for our lives for centuries. Our elders taught us how to fight the rubber tappers and the oil companies and the loggers. Now we need to protect them from this disease. If our elders die now, the youth will lose their way and won’t be able to survive against all of the threats.”

Nenquimo and the assembled Waorani leaders were right to worry, and take preventive action.

As the COVID-19 pandemic reaches the edge of indigenous territories in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Nemonte Nenquimo (left) and other Waorani leaders have remained in frontier towns to help organize preventative measures for their communities.Mitch Anderson—Amazon Frontlines

In the month since that first announcement, there have been more than 8000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Ecuador. Guayaquil, the nation´s largest city and main port, has become the epicenter of the pandemic in Ecuador. Images of the dead abandoned on sidewalks there became global headlines. On April 1, Brazil recorded the first confirmed Covid-19 case within an Amazonian indigenous community, and on April 10th the first death: a 15 year-old Yanomami boy. It seemed inevitable, only a matter of time before the virus would reach Waorani territory.

Indigenous communities across the globe face disproportionally high risks during pandemics due to often crowded living quarters, water shortages, and lack of health care facilities, equipment and personnel,.

This latest threat from disease is part of a long sad history. European invasions of indigenous territories in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries brought, in addition to murder and slavery, epidemics such as smallpox and influenza that killed millions of people. Indigenous peoples of the Americas today are the survivors of one of the largest genocides in history, where an estimated 56 million people died. And the survivors, oral storytellers, carry these memories with them.

The Waorani were “contacted” by western civilization as recently as the 1950s as oil exploration pushed deeper into the rainforest. Waorani elders have living memories of their family members dying from foreign diseases: they say that more than half of the population died in the first decade of their contact. Neighboring indigenous nations, like the Secoya and Siona who were enslaved during the rubber boom tell stories of arriving to visit at other clan’s long houses, and finding only skeletons in the hammocks.

“My father was a young boy when his brothers and sisters started dying from the new diseases, yellow fever, polio, and the flu. Almost all of our people died. It was terrible. Strong healthy men crippled from polio. Foaming at the mouth. Sweating from fever. I don’t even want to think about it,” says Nemonte.

The contagious COVID-19 presents an extreme risk to indigenous peoples across the Amazon. For one, there is the challenge of getting public health information to isolated villages about the virus and the precautionary measures necessary to prevent its spread. Also, the idea of “social distancing” could be difficult for those indigenous peoples who often live in large family compounds, and whose culture involves drinking and sharing chicha (a saliva-fermented manioc mash).

“If this sickness enters our villages, it will be hard to prevent a terrible outbreak because we live communally. We all share food and drinks, and we have large families that all live together under one roof. That’s the way we are,” Nenquimo says.

Indigenous peoples’ geographical isolation can be a double-edged sword during a pandemic. On the one hand, their roadless rainforest territories represent an important buffer from the densely-crowded, high-transmission rates of the frontier boomtowns. Yet, the fear is that once the virus enters their territory by a “silent carrier” returning from a distant town by canoe, or down long jungle paths that pass numerous villages, the people in the villages will not have the necessary information to isolate and care for the sick. As of early April, the disease has already reached nearly every frontier boomtown at the edge of the Amazon.

There is also the lack of health services for remote communities. While indigenous peoples have access to a vast “pharmacy” of medicinal plants, determining which plants might protect against and cure a highly pathogenic novel virus from the other side of the world is next to impossible. And yet for many, that will be their only hope. For the Waorani, the nearest hospitals are a jungle plane flight or many days in canoe away, and with the national shutdown there are no jungle planes flying (except for those of the Ecuadorian Air Force).

The Waorani are only one of hundreds of indigenous peoples across the Amazon defending defending nearly one million square miles of primary forest – or roughly 35% of the entire Amazon basin across nine countries. They are engaged in an increasingly urgent defense of their lands from state and industry attempts to open the “earth’s lungs” to mining, oil, logging and agribusiness. The combined impacts of these industries has, in the last half century, brought the rainforest to within sight of a devastating ecological tipping point, threatening the very existence of a rainforest biome that is home to 10% of the earth’s species, contains and recycles much of its freshwater, and forms the largest terrestrial carbon sink on the planet.

Under the administration of rightwing Trump ally Jair Bolsonaro, and the protection of the Brazilian military, farmers have set tens of thousands of forest fires. Environmentalists and indigenous leaders have decried the fires as an attempt to clear-cut the world’s largest rainforest for soybeans and cows. The irony here is cruel as such steroid-fueled industrial agriculture probably paved the way for the emergence of the Coronavirus in the first place.

All this has led indigenous communities throughout the region to try and stop the spread of the virus.

“Right now, we’re focused on prevention,” says Gilberto Nenquimo. “We need to make sure our communities have the information they need to take precautions, and also that they have the food provisions they need to stay put in the villages, and not expose themselves to risk in the frontier towns.”

For many indigenous nations of the Amazon their vast rainforest territories provide everything they need to survive – food, medicines, shelter, water, spiritual well-being. But because of intensifying threats – it’s estimated that 68% of indigenous territory across the Amazon is at risk from roads, mining, dams, oil drilling, forest fires, and deforestation – many indigenous peoples have been stripped of the customary abundance of forest life, and left with degraded lands, surrounded by oil fields and cow pastures.

“I’m worried most about the communities along the oil roads. They depend on money and food from the companies, and from the cities, because the wild animals are gone, and the rivers are contaminated. They are most at risk now for getting sick, and spreading the virus to other communities deeper in the forest,” says Gilberto.

Indigenous organizations and civil society groups in Ecuador have also expressed worry about the government’s competence and preparedness to provide medical attention to remote indigenous villages in case of an outbreak. Several indigenous organizations and human rights groups, including the organization I founded, Amazon Frontlines, have launched a campaign to crowdfund and channel resources to indigenous-led efforts to protect villagers from COVID-19.

“How can we trust the government to protect us or cure us from this sickness when all the government cares about is extracting resources from our land,” says Nemonte. “We have to organize ourselves.”

The quarantine measures the Waorani are taking, however, do not only imply closing all their communities to outsiders, but also to each other.

“We are trapped outside of our territory,” Nemonte said to me one morning, as we walked to give the daily morning dispatch about COVID-19 to the villages. “This is a living nightmare for a Waorani woman. To be trapped in a frontier town during the plague, away from our families, away from the forest, where there are no fish, no animals, no gardens. But we have to be here. Otherwise our people will just be in the dark, and there will be no plan to prevent the sickness from entering our lands, and no medical care for people that get sick.”

While such immediate, though nearly impossible to maintain, isolation is needed to try and prevent an overwhelming humanitarian disaster in indigenous communities, the Waorani and other indigenous leaders know that the longer and harder battle to change the economic and political models that lead to deforestation, displacement and pandemic diseases, will require more global connectedness and solidarity than ever.

“Many people across the world have lost connection with nature, with the earth,” Nemonte says. “This disease is a message from nature that everything is out of balance, but I don’t know if people are listening.”

In March, just days before Ecuador declared a national lockdown in response to COVID-19, the new Minister for Energy and Non-renewable Natural Resources, René Ortíz, said during a television interview that he planned to “take advantage of this crisis” to not only continue, but to speed up oil and mining projects to extract “all possible natural resources.”

“What’s more important, life or money?” Nemonte asked. “That’s the question that will decide everything. Indigenous peoples have always chosen life. We never destroyed our homes for money. That’s what the outsiders do. That’s what your society does.”

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