Fear of coronavirus causes withdrawal into forest

The fear of catching COVID-19 has led indigenous communities to retreat into the forest, to avoid any contact with society at large. The threat posed by coronavirus is adding to an already difficult situation for many rainforest inhabitants.

Illustration photo: Rainforest Foundation Norway

There are now grave fears that COVID-19 poses a particular threat to indigenous people, given their past susceptibility to viruses that cause influenza and respiratory illnesses. The fact that many indigenous communities live in countries with inadequate local healthcare services adds to this concern. Groups already living in voluntary isolation are especially at risk as they lack immunity to these kinds of illnesses, and their healthcare services are poorly equipped to deal with an epidemic. For these people the spread of infection could prove disastrous.

‘We are hearing reports from Peru, Indonesia, Colombia and Brazil, of indigenous people “fleeing” from the coronavirus,’ said Øyvind Eggen, the director of Rainforest Foundation Norway. The Nukak tribe of Colombia, who lived in isolation from the outside world until fairly recently, have reportedly moved back into the forest areas they inhabited before being displaced during Colombia’s civil war.

At the same time, their territory is under threat from various criminal groups involved in illegal logging, mining and cultivation of coca plants.

‘The corona crisis is creating additional pressure on what is already a very difficult situation for rainforest inhabitants,’ said a gravely concerned Eggen.

Villages in the rainforest are cutting off all contact with the society at large in a response to the corona situation.

Erection of roadblocks

In the heavily forested Indonesian province of Papua, roadblocks have been erected in villages to prevent logging companies and others from entering forest areas. They fear that the virus will be spread by workers. Community leaders have also appealed to the authorities for help to stop logging and mining companies from entering the forest.

According to Rainforest Foundation Norway’s partner organisations in Kalimantan, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, such as the Dayak Punan, have retreated further into the rainforest to protect themselves from catching COVID-19.

‘This shows that the local forest communities have responded quickly to the situation,’ said Elna Bastiansen, head of Rainforest Foundation’s Norway’s Indonesia programme. ‘Perhaps this will have some positive effects in the long term,’ she added.

However, with essential services being closed down and thousands of Indonesian workers returning from places such as Malaysia, there is an increased risk of contagion or conflict between those on the frontline of rainforest protection and those who want to exploit it. 

‘People are afraid,’ Bastiansen said.

Viral diseases, primarily influenza, killed roughly half of the Nahua population in the eighties. Photo: Johan Wildhagen

Could spell disaster for isolated indigenous peoples 

There was a quick reaction when Brazil proposed to relax the laws that strictly regulate procedures for contact with isolated indigenous tribes in Amazonia. There was such a backlash, both in Brazil and around the world, that the National Indian Foundation of Brazil, FUNAI, rescinded the proposal.

It is illegal for missionaries and others to actively contact isolated indigenous people in any of the Amazonian countries that have such inhabitants. Consequently, missionary activities are no longer carried out openly. In Peru, covert missionary activity continues, with missionaries paying others to find the isolated tribes for them. They use local indigenous mission representatives living in villages near isolated tribes. This practice is completely illegal, but it happens, nonetheless.

Both legal and illegal logging operations and oil and mineral exploration in the rainforest have often represented a great risk to rainforest inhabitants.

The Nahua tribe of Peru, living in the vicinity of the Camisea gas project, were contacted by loggers in 1984. Viral diseases, primarily influenza, killed roughly half of the tribe’s population within the space of a few months. The situation was completely out of control; despite medical assistance, it was impossible to stop people dying. The Nahua have  never regained the numbers they had prior to contact.

Link to Rainforest Foundation Norway’s feature article on the Nahua tribe’s fatal contact with the outside world.

It’s never been so easy to kill environmental activists

The corona crisis may open up opportunities for land grabbers to exploit the situation and take forest areas belonging to indigenous people. In Brazil, important services for rainforest protection, such as surveillance and the environmental police force, have been greatly reduced due to funding cuts over the past year by president Bolsonaro. 

Within a few days after Colombia’s residents were instructed to stay at home, three environmental activists were killed by death squads.

‘When the population stays within their own four walls there are no witnesses in the streets,’ said Susan Fay Kelly, human rights adviser for Rainforest Foundation Norway.

‘While the police focuses on making sure people comply with the quarantine measures, community leaders and environmental activists are more vulnerable to threats, violence and murder than ever before.’ 

History must not be allowed to repeat itself

Unfortunately, history is full of examples of what can go wrong when indigenous people are exposed to viruses to which they have no immunity.

One glaring example is the Panará people of Brazil, who were almost completely eradicated by disease when the BR-163 highway was built straight through their rainforest. Construction of the highway from Cuiabá to Santarém led to sporadic contact between construction workers and indigenous people. Within the space of two years, influenza and diarrhoea had almost wiped out the entire indigenous tribe. Chief Akè Panará recalled the critical situation: 

‘We were in our villages and then everyone began to die. Some retreated into the forest and died there. We were so weak and sick that we couldn’t even bury the dead. They rotted on the ground and were eaten by animals.’

Source: Instituto Socioambiental. Indigenous Peoples of Brazil: the Panará

The greatly-reduced Panará people were relocated from their original home territory to the Xingu Indigenous Park in the 1970s. Rainforest Foundation Norway supported an initiative to reunite the Panará people with their original forest territory, and in 1995 they were given back parts of their land.

‘Indigenous people have a very close connection to their land. You can’t separate their religions, history, languages and economic situation from the local ecosystem they are a part of without it having severe consequences,’ said Ellen Hestnes Ribeiro, the head of Rainforest Foundation Norway’s Brazil Programme.

‘We often see that infrastructure projects and other forms of intervention in areas inhabited by indigenous people have extremely serious social consequences. In cases where the indigenous people have had little contact with the outside world, it can be fatal. For the Panará people, being able to re-establish their tribe in their traditional homelands was a great victory, allowing them to reconnect with their history and use their traditional skills once more, and reducing conflicts in the new areas they had previously been moved to.’

"Lukas, of the Awyu tribe from Meto Village, told me the cause of this virus was the destruction of the forest and that humans were greedily depleting the forests' resources. So nature was angry, their ancestors were angry, and wanted to punish humans, those who destroyed the forest and customs”.

Franky Samperante, Pusaka, Kalimantan

Fear of a new invasion of gold miners, in addition to infection

Contact with the the outside world in the 1980s was both very dramatic and deadly for the Amazonian Yanomami and Ye’kwana tribes of northern Brazil. At one point, as many as 45,000 gold miners from all over Brazil were attracted by rumours of considerable gold deposits in their part of Amazonia. One in five Yanomami and Ye’kwana tribespeople died, as a consequence of diseases that the gold miners brought with them, mercury poisoning and violent clashes with the intruders.

 ‘The Yanomami are not only threatened by the risk of infection, but also by the threat of a new invasion of gold miners, as a consequence of an economic depression and even weaker forest surveillance and control in the wake of the corona crisis,’ said Ellen Hestnes Ribeiro.

Attempts to isolate the entire community in the rainforest

Rainforest Foundation Norway’s partner organisation in Brazil, Instituto Socioambiental, reports that measures have been taken to isolate Brazil’s largest indigenous municipality, São Gabriel da Cachoeira, in north-west Amazonia. In this region, there are roughly 50,000 inhabitants, most of whom belong to 22 different indigenous tribes.

Here diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are already widespread, especially in areas where there are many Venezuelan refugees. The Brazilian Indigenous Peoples’ Association (APIB) has asked the authorities to increase entry controls, both here and in other indigenous areas where any form of intrusion represents a potential risk of contagion.

The consequences of coronavirus for Brazil’s indigenous peoples are even more worrying since healthcare services in rural areas, already insufficient, have deteriorated further since President Bolsonaro came to office.

In Colombia efforts are being made to spread information to indigenous territories in a number of local languages, so that everyone is informed about how to avoid becoming infected. Photo: Rainforest Foundation Norway.

Poor healthcare services in Colombia too

The critical state of healthcare services in rural communities in Colombia, already lacking from before, is of grave concern. To make matters worse, those requiring health services must often travel long distances. 

‘In the event of an outbreak of disease in rural areas, the response time will be lengthy. Our local partners are in contact with the health authorities and are spreading information about protection from infection to rural communities via radio communication and telephone,’ said Siri Blaser, Rainforest Foundation Norway’s senior adviser for Colombia.

Efforts are being made to spread this information further to indigenous territories in a number of local languages, so that everyone is informed about how to avoid becoming infected. However, a lack of soap, hygiene products and disinfectants means that not everybody is able to follow the advice. Rural communities are trying to avoid contact with the outside world as far as possible, and checks are being carried out of all people entering or leaving these territories. People who don’t belong in the territories are refused entry, while freight transport with goods for the territories is now limited to essential supplies. Disease protection measures are being carried out in that connection.

Migrants return from Thailand

Myanmar has shut down all air travel to and from Thailand, and control posts have been established to limit domestic travel.

‘Myanmar is completely unprepared for a pandemic of this kind,’ explained Siri Damman, Rainforest Foundation Norway’s senior adviser for Myanmar. ‘If there is a large outbreak of the virus it will totally overpower the health system.’   

‘At first, we thought the forest-based communities were better protected because there are now strict restrictions in place with regard to travelling to these forest areas. But we're now seeing a stream of people flowing into the forest, such as people who work in the towns, who are now returning to their local villages. These people, together with migrant workers and refugees returning from Thailand, could contribute to a more rapid spread of the virus.’

It’s innovation time!

Crises are also times for innovation. On the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, Rainforest Foundation Norway’s partner organisation, Warsi, has installed surveillance equipment to detect the sound of chainsaws, in case outsiders eye an opportunity to exploit the situation. They have dubbed this ‘The Guardian.’ So far, no logging activities have been registered, but in case this happens they will be able to report it to the local authorities, who will crack down on illegal activities.