COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly in the region. Between April 17—when the first case was reported in Amazonas—and October 31, the Colombian Amazon has recorded 22.721 cases. Almost 80% of the total (18.164 cases), occurred in the last quarter of 2020.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 represents a risk for the complex system of knowledge and practices of the 64 Indigenous Ethnic Groups of the Colombian Amazon — which rests in elders. The older men -sabedores- communicate with the spiritual owners of the territory to balance the energy flow between nature and humans. Simultaneously, the older women -sabedoras- pass on their knowledge to younger women about work in the chagras—traditional agroforestry plots—and the exchange of seeds necessary to maintain the Amazon Indigenous Food Systems (SAIA).
If the indigenous peoples are at risk, the Amazon is also under threat. Recent data from the RAISG (Amazon Georeferenced and Socio-Environmental Information Network) shows that, out of the 1,4 million hectares of forest that the Colombian Amazon lost in the last three decades, only 0,19% took place in Indigenous Territories. These peoples have ensured for millennia the conservation of the world's lung. Without them, the forest and its environmental services hang by a thread.
Nevertheless, and thanks to the strength of their knowledge systems and traditional practices, they have managed to maintain COVID-19’s death rate low in their territories. A first encounter between Gaia Amazonas Foundation advising team and the Indigenous Governments of the territories of Bajo Río Caquetá, Mirití Paraná, and Yaigojé Apaporis, in Amazonas, confirmed it. The indigenous told how the most effective measures and decisions have been guided by sabedores and sabedoras, also known as tradicionales.
In addition to isolating from the urban centers and people outside their communities, the measures taken by the Indigenous Governments included the use of different types of incense to purify the air, as well sweeping the Malokas to expel all the negativity that arrives to the territory.
On the other hand, collective rituals, like dances, were maintained along the main rivers and its tributaries where the distance of two meters and the use of face masks were not implemented. Though incompatible with social distancing guidelines advised by the non-indigenous system, these rituals are deemed essential to contain and weaken the disease.
The pandemic and its lessons, which start to become evident, reopen the debate about the need to implement an intercultural healthcare system. One that does not seek to include indigenous peoples into an existing and foreign system, but rather advocates for the recovery and complementary use of traditional knowledge and specialties. Likewise, this intercultural system would complement the valuable and effective indigenous system, with key non-indigenous practices that are necessary to treat diseases that arise from interaction with people outside their communities.
The risk of disease persists, however, the measures adopted in many territories highlight the effectiveness and validity of indigenous knowledge systems, not only in times of disease, but also in daily practices where the good human relations and the good management of the territory translates into good health for all
Coordinator Territories and Indigenous Communities at Gaia Amazonas Foundation
Border crossings, as well as the cultural and commercial relations, that have been historically woven among Amazonian countries and departments, make the pandemic’s behavior in thep region even more complex. There, rivers are the main conveyance of transportation for its inhabitants, therefore, are one of the routes of contagion inside the jungle
In the Amazon, Indigenous Territories were able to contain the lethality of the virus because they adopted preventive and curative measures early on. In Vaupés, some communities have followed the guidelines of sabedoras and sabedores to weaken the disease, -while others, in the Isana, Surubí, and Pirá-Paraná rivers- have managed some of the 30 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with complementary treatments taken from traditional and non-indigenous medicine, such as the combination of the Saracura plant and acetaminophen.
During the first months of the pandemic, and due to the high numbers of contagion reported by the region, the National Organization of the Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC) filed a guardianship action against the departmental and national authorities, arguing a lack of effective measures to contain the impacts of the disease in the Colombian Amazon.
The ruling was in their favor, and resulted into an urgent provision plan for the mitigation and contingency of the disease, in which the governorates must guarantee food security, healthcare services, and education for indigenous communities. Actions, that as expected, have to be maintained in the long term.
Also, and in order to support the autonomous health management of the communities and contribute to the strengthening of their food security systems, the Gaia Amazonas Foundation, the Indigenous Governments of 13 territories in Amazonas, Vaupés, and Guanía, and the Rainforest Norway Foundation created the COVID-19 Emergency Strategy for Indigenous Territories in Colombia(CESIT), along 12 million hectares of the Colombian Amazon.
This process has financial support from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), Skoll foundation, Santo Domingo Foundation and Mulago Foundation, and also, works with partners like the Colombian National Natural Parks authority (PNN), the OPIAC, Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), Etnollano Foundation and Rye & Tye NOORDA Foundation.
As part of the strategy, 3.033 families received information to form their own impressions about the origins and nature of the disease. For this purpose, they received in their territories 666 toolboxes with messages and guidelines—some of them translated into their own languages—for basic collective and self care measures, which have been adopted by international healthcare authorities and may complement their traditional preventive measures.
In May, and then again in August and September, they received 4.450 isolation support kits that contain enough goods and tools for them to continue hunting, harvesting , and fishing, thus, avoiding the need to travel to urban centers where the probability of contagion is higher.
Also, and to manage the disease, Gaia Amazonas made recommendations to identify and care for people with symptoms inside the communities: take them to previously defined places for isolation, monitor the evolution of the disease, and notify the indigenous and sanitary authorities.
Additionally, the strategy created two extramural community teams in Mitú, Leticia, and Inírida and, in partnership with the healthcare secretariats, provided 20 personal protective equipment (PPE) kits to strengthen epidemiological supervision in these three departmental capitals. Indigenous Territories will also have community healthcare teams, and will receive 176 PPE kits to treat ill patients and possible deaths.
Likewise, the strategy contemplates strengthening the communication networks, to monitor the evolution of the disease in the Indigenous Territories of the three departments. To achieve this goal, 64 radiotelephones will be installed during the first two months of 2021, which will ease communication among communities, their authorities and healthcare secretariats, to take early actions and halt new potential emergencies.
Our goal is to strengthen the traditional prevention and healing strategies, not only to respond to the current emergency, but also, to guarantee the full autonomy of Indigenous Governments in healthcare management within their territories
*Coordinator, Consolidation of the Amazon Indigenous Governments, Gaia Amazonas Foundation
COVID-19 reached seven Indigenous Territories (TI) and six Associations of Traditional Indigenous Authorities (AATI) that work with Gaia Amazonas Foundation in the consolidation of their Indigenous Governments and in strategies for territorial planning. These territories are home to 41 ethnic groups and overlap with so-called non-municipal areas (ANM). There, border crossings also pose a threat.