Latin America's indigenous peoples shield elders as COVID-19 threatens their cultural heritage

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Indigenous Peruvian woman from the Chinchero District in the Andes Mountains demonstrating traditional weaving using locally produced and dyed wool. March 2016. Photograph by Robert R. Oxborrow.

Latin America’s 42 million indigenous people are already acutely aware of ongoing threats to their cultural heritage due to activities such as mining, oil extraction, and deforestation, but now the coronavirus has been added to the list. From the Andes to the Amazon, indigenous groups are closing access to their communities in order to protect their elders—the keepers of their cultural heritage—from COVID-19.

Many of Latin America’s indigenous peoples are preliterate, holding traditions, languages, stories, and oral histories that existed before written records. "All indigenous wisdom is oral, passed from generation to generation, so the elders carry all the accumulated experience," said Eduardo Nieva, a leader of the Amaicha de Valle people in northwest Argentina. "That experience—the one they keep—is what we are protecting."

Many communities have taken extreme measures to protect themselves during the pandemic. In the north of Argentina, some villages have put up physical barricades blocking road access into the communities. In the Narino province of Colombia, the Pasto community is said to be enforcing corporal punishment for those who disobey the strict quarantine rules, and a local media video shot in April is reported to show a young man in pain after receiving lashes for violating the quarantine regulations of the community.

Sadly this is not the first time that illness has threatened to destroy the identity of indigenous communities. In the 1950s nearly half of the Kalapalo tribe members in a Xingu, Brazil village died due to a measles outbreak. And infamously, Europeans colonizing the Americas centuries ago brought new diseases, such as smallpox, which killed millions of the indigenous people.

Many indigenous communities are growing impatient with what they see as a lack of government action to help provide adequate access to food, supplies, and medical treatments. "We cannot wait any longer for our governments ...” says José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, a member of the Wakuenai Kurripaco people of Venezuela. “We are in danger of extinction."

Some organizations have stepped up to help, including the Amazon Emergency Fund from the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Basin (COICA) and the Rainforest Foundation US.

(For the full article and more, see the June-July 2020 "News in Conservation" Issue 78, p. 7)

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Latin America’s 42 million indigenous people are already acutely aware of ongoing threats to their cultural heritage due to activities such as mining, oil extraction, and deforestation, but now the coronavirus has been added to the list. From the Andes to the Amazon, indigenous groups are closing access to their communities in order to protect their elders—the keepers of their cultural heritage—from COVID-19.
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