On Monday 18 May, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, José Francisco Cali Tzay, claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic is not just posing a health threat to indigenous communities, but it is also exacerbating existing threats to their territories and resources. The report calls upon governments worldwide to block the escalating attack on indigenous lands.
Cali Tzay, himself an indigenous Mayan from Guatemala, said that the pandemic is creating opportunities for furthering the marginalisation of indigenous communities. In some countries, he stated, consultations with indigenous peoples and environmental impact assessments are being suspended to force through destructive agribusiness and infrastructure projects. ‘Indigenous peoples who lose their lands and livelihoods are pushed further into poverty, higher rates of malnutrition, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, as well as exclusion from medical services, which in turn renders them particularly vulnerable to the disease,’ he said.
The invasion and destruction of land for business interests has caused a crisis many indigenous communities had been facing long before the pandemic. In Brazil, for instance, indigenous people in the Amazon have been struggling to survive for generations. And since he rose to power in 2019, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been accused of undermining government agencies that are put in place to protect indigenous reserves, through drastic budget cuts and, recently, by sacking environmental officials who targeted illegal trespassers.
Earlier this month, a host of celebrities signed an open letter to the Brazilian president, urging leaders to expel trespassers such as miners and illegal loggers from indigenous lands to prevent the spread of the virus. ‘Five centuries ago, these ethnic groups were wiped out by diseases brought by European colonists,’ stated Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, the organiser of the petition. He warns that the current pandemic could lead to another ‘genocide’ of indigenous people.
This link between the attack on indigenous reserves and the spread of the virus indicates the close relationship between environmental destruction and threats to public health. According to a wealth of research, zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 are linked to deforestation, which disturbs ecosystems, often leading to humans coming into contact with wild animal species. Consequently, a spill-over of pathogens occurs which mutate and infect humans.
According to WWF’s latest figures, 20% of the Amazon rainforest has already been lost to deforestation, caused by cattle ranching, dam construction, logging and mining. The illegal wildlife trade is also contributing to the disruption of ecosystems in Brazil and elsewhere. The destruction of natural reserves is not just threatening many indigenous communities, but as is clear from the current pandemic, it also poses a threat to lives across the globe.
Cali Tzay pointed out in his UN report that some indigenous communities have managed to resist the COVID-19 pandemic through autonomy and self-government, which allowed them to manage their lands, territories and resources. Cali Tzay reflected on this fact, warning: ‘The pandemic is teaching us that we need to change . . . We need to value the collective over the individual and build inclusive societies that respect and protect everyone. It is not only about protecting our health.’
Governments need to protect the rights of indigenous people to govern their own lands, and to defend them against those who wish to destroy and exploit natural resources for profit. The current health crisis has highlighted that protecting the environment not only helps to combat climate change, but also plays a huge role in preventing future pandemics.
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