Catholic leaders warn that as the coronavirus pandemic spreads into the Amazon basin, the region may face a “humanitarian and environmental tragedy.”
Indigenous people who suffer violence for their efforts to defend their land against miners, loggers and land grabbers are also at great risk from Covid-19, according to a statement from the Pan-Amazonian Church Network (REPAM). The statement was signed by Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto Jimeno and Mauricio Lopez, Executive Secretary of REPAM, as the church network is known.
According to Lopez, some of the communities are speaking of a potential genocide. “These are communities that face a greater vulnerability because they have a very precarious health structure,” he said. “You also have to take into account that the lives of these communities make it really hard to follow some of the measures suggested, such as isolation, because most of these people live day-to-day, with an economy of subsistence.”
Caritas has played a “key role” in providing humanitarian aid such as food and basic health assistance. Lopez said the gravity of the pandemic is so large that his aid might prove insufficient, but proves the Church is present “where no one else cares to go.”
Throughout the Amazon, more than 30 indigenous groups have reported more than 500 Covid-19 cases and more than 100 deaths, according to REPAM. The figures could be much higher because of unreported cases and deaths in Amazonian cities such as Manaus, Brazil, and Iquitos, Peru, where healthcare systems are overwhelmed.
“I fear a genocide,” said Arthur Virgilio Neto, mayor of Manaus, a city of 2 million people and capital of Amazonas state. The mayor said the government of President Jair Bolsonaro is not concerned about the plight of indigenous people and is doing nothing to save lives threatened by the outbreak.
“It is a crime against humanity what they are doing here in my state of Amazonas, in my region” he said.
In Bolivia, indigenous people decry “the government’s lack of coordination and consultation” in addressing the pandemic, especially in ensuring that information is available in people’s native languages, the REPAM statement said.
Colombia’s bishops noted that indigenous people, those of African descent and peasant farmers face particular risk from the virus “because they were already living in a situation of structural poverty, with food insecurity and malnutrition, without access to healthcare and safe drinking water.”
Throughout the region, millions of people live from day to day on what they earn as street vendors or day labourers. In Peru, when the government imposed mandatory quarantines, those people have been unable to work, and many have run out of food or been evicted from rented homes.
Among them are indigenous people who migrated from their Amazonian communities to cities in search of work. Peru’s bishops have called for the government to help those people, who are “completely unprotected.”
Although the pandemic has slowed the economies of Amazonian countries, environmental destruction from deforestation, illegal mining and other activities continues, according to the REPAM statement.
In Venezuela, Bishops, together with the ecclesial organizations that deal with indigenous peoples, are in solidarity with the voice of the indigenous communities expressed in their “Document on the COVID-19 situation”, and support “their cries, their pains and anxieties”.
In the statement, the bishops said that it is “a hopeless situation that is getting worse and worse due to COVID-19.”
The pandemic and the consequent isolation aggravate “the serious deterioration of the living conditions of indigenous peoples, caused by the systematic exclusion from their rights to the goods and services necessary for a dignified life”. The document underlines that the uncertainty caused by the pandemic “is added to the situation of abandonment of indigenous peoples and to the harmful influence of mining that endangers the very future of these peoples”.
Six priority points are therefore indicated. The existence of a specific protocol in the event of contagion from Covid-19 of indigenous peoples is unknown. In some communities, awareness raising activities are carried out without guaranteeing drinking water services and ignoring the economic situation of families. Dispensaries and health centres in indigenous communities have no stable presence of health workers nor the tools to address basic health needs. Many indigenous people have been stuck in the places where they were and there is no prospect of them returning to their families.
Isolation prevents indigenous people from dedicating themselves to cultivation and fishing, also the lack of transport does not allow their craft products to be transported to the markets, making the economic situation even more difficult. In particular, the educational situation is alarming: the lack of fuel has suspended transport, preventing students from reaching schools, while in the majority of communities there is no electricity, no television or internet signal. Uncontrolled mining activity causes armed raids and violence against indigenous peoples who oppose the destruction of their environment.
Meanwhile, the Alliance of Indigenous Parliamentarians of Latin America has called on the WHO to make recommendations to the countries in the region to help them prioritize measures aimed at guaranteeing the protection of life, especially of the indigenous populations.
Another local organization, the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin, is making a request for donations to an emergency fund to “to protect the 3 million inhabitants of the tropical forest who are vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.” The statement also states that the regional Caritas network is striving to provide material and economic resources, social assistance and spiritual support.