'Coronavirus could wipe us out': indigenous South Americans blockade villages

Dan Collyns in Lima, Sam Cowie in São Paulo, Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá and Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
Photograph: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Indigenous groups across South America are blockading their villages and retreating into their traditional forest and mountain homes in a bid to escape the potentially cataclysmic threat of coronavirus.

In recent days, as the number of cases in South America has risen to almost 8,000 – with many more cases likely to be unreported – indigenous groups in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru have all started taking steps to protect themselves from what they call a historic danger.

“Coronavirus could wipe us out,” warned Ianucula Kaiabi, an indigenous leader in Brazil’s Xingu national park, a sprawling sanctuary on the southern fringes of the Amazon that is home to about 6,000 people from 16 different tribes.

With Brazil’s death toll hitting 136 on Sunday, Xingu leaders have been sealing off roads into their reserve, which is almost the size of Belgium, and urging local residents to leave only in emergencies.

Further north, on Brazil’s Amazon border with Colombia and Venezuela, the country’s most indigenous municipality, São Gabriel da Cachoeira, has reportedly been placed in total lockdown, with all flights and boat traffic suspended.

“It’s an extremely sensitive region,” Marivelton Baré, the president of the River Negro Indigenous Federation, said of the isolated district, which lies three days from Manaus by boat. “The health system is precarious and we have isolated tribes here.”

Sofia Mendonça, a public health physician who works in the Xingu, said acute, highly infectious diseases such as measles, smallpox and flu viruses had a long track record of “decimating” indigenous communities and were a particular threat to Brazil’s more than 100 isolated groups.

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“Right now the big issue is stopping this virus from reaching the villages. If this virus gets into the villages it will cause a huge amount of death,” Mendonça, said remembering how Brazil’s Panará people were nearly wiped out in the early 1970s after the dictatorship bulldozed a road through their lands.

“We are talking about true genocide,” Mendonça warned.

Across the region there are similar fears.

“If coronavirus reached native populations the impact would be terrible,” said Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, the head of a regional network called the Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin, which has advised communities to go into lockdown and evacuate outsiders.

“Due to our community-based way of life, the transmission would be very fast and the mortality would be extremely high,” added Díaz Mirabal, a member of the indigenous Kurripako people of Venezuela.

Segundo Chukipiondo, a spokesperson for Peru’s Amazon indigenous federation, said it had urged the 2,000-plus communities it represents to close their borders.

The first South American community to self-isolate appears to have been Tawasap, a 70-strong settlement in Ecuador’s southern Santiago Morona region.

In late February, weeks before Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, ordered a nationwide lockdown, a Shuar indigenous leader called Tzamarenda Estalin placed a sign at his village’s entrance that read: “Entry forbidden as a health precaution.”

“We decided to shut our doors and not let anybody in or out … in order to care for our people,” said Tzamarenda, 49.

The Shuar’s 349 other villages, home to about 3,800 people, quickly followed suit. “Pandemics have hit us before - like influenza, measles and chickenpox – and they killed millions of people in Latin America,” he said, echoing the fears of indigenous communities across the region.

Recent studies show diseases such as smallpox and measles brought by European invaders may have wiped out up to 90% of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas – perhaps 55 million of an estimated 60 million people – between the late 15th and 17th centuries.

Tzamarenda, who traces his lineage to Kirup, a warrior leader who expelled both Incas and Spanish conquistadors from Shuar territory in the 16th century, said that risk meant Tawasap would stay closed until at least May.

“Knowing we can’t cure ourselves because there is no cure, we have shut ourselves in,” he told the Guardian by telephone. “We don’t have masks or alcohol but we can use our medicinal plants to protect us.”

In Colombia, which has confirmed 608 Covid-19 cases and six deaths, indigenous communities are also self-isolating, setting up roadblocks outside their reservations and outlawing visits to their ancestral lands.

The country is home to about 1.5m indigenous citizens from 87 different tribes.

“On Monday we held meetings and decided the best way to protect ourselves is to return to our lands,” said Luis Fernando Arias, a coordinator for Colombia’s national indigenous organization and member of the Kankuamo people from the Sierra Nevada mountain range on the Caribbean coast.

Related: Brazil: measles outbreak that infected 500 may devastate indigenous people

In Colombia’s southern reaches, on the edge of the Amazon jungle, the semi-nomadic Nükak community have also gone into isolation with 40 families – about 200 people – heading into two remote reservations hours from the nearest town.

“These communities have taken the decision to isolate themselves,” said Kelly Peña, who works for the national parks service in Guaviare, the province where the Nükak live.

“But many don’t have phone signal or food supplies, so they are coordinating when they can with local government to organize deliveries.”

“Some are still waiting for supplies before they go into isolation,” Peña added.

Mendonça, who works at São Paulo’s Federal University, said taking flight at a time of epidemic was a longstanding practice for South American indigenous communities, a survival technique passed down from generation to generation or acquired from personal suffering. “This is part of their ancestral memory,” she said.

But such tactics – which were employed during 2016’s H1N1 epidemic – also brought risks.

A mother prepares food for her children in the village of Kamayura, in Xingu national park. Brazil. Photograph: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

If those flocking back to remote villages from towns outside reserves were not properly quarantined or tested before returning it was possible they could carry coronavirus back home with them – with catastrophic effects.

“People are panicking. They are worried – and they want to go back,” Mendonça said. “But it is very important for there to be an isolation or quarantine process so you can [safely] return to your village, to your home. And this will require different strategies in each place.”

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Mendonça said authorities also needed to act swiftly to expel outsiders such as thousands of wildcat goldminers from reserves like the Yanomami territory, straddling Brazil’s border with Venezuela.

“If we don’t get these people out of the [indigenous] areas the chance of contagion is much greater,” she said.

Kaiabi, who is head of the Xingu Indigenous Land Association, said he feared Brazil’s specialized indigenous health system – which has faced dramatic cuts under the country’s anti-indigenous president, Jair Bolsonaro – was “totally unequipped” to deal with the coming coronavirus crisis.

That explained why xinguanos were now taking their own measures to block the advance of yet another deadly epidemic.

“This is very dark part of our history,” he said, “and we don’t want a repeat.”

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