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We Must Not Overlook Indigenous Peoples in the Coronavirus Fight

August 19, 2020

Arlington, Va. (August 19, 2020) – Conservation International Director of the Indigenous and Traditional People Program and member of the Kankanaey-Igorot Indigenous group, Minnie Degawan, issued the following statement to raise awareness of COVID-19 cases among remote Indigenous communities:

“As we adapt to the new normal in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the worldwide case count continues to rise and as many of us fight to build back better following this global crisis, it is essential we not overlook the world’s Indigenous peoples.

“From the Brazilian Amazon to the Pacific Island nations, the spread of COVID-19 is robbing Indigenous peoples of their leadership, elders, friends and families at unprecedented rates. With this loss, many of nature’s most important protectors and thousands of years of ancestral wisdom and knowledge are being taken from the world. As of mid-August, in the Amazon alone, there have been more than 850,000 confirmed coronavirus cases among the Indigenous peoples, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. In Africa and Asia, thousands are affected, but there is a lack of systematic monitoring which further exasperates the virus’ impact in these regions.

“Many around the world are unaware of the challenges and losses these communities face. Due to remote living and voluntary isolation, Indigenous peoples often lack immunity to infectious diseases and are not well-connected to modern medical facilities. In some areas, access to clean drinking and wash water is limited, making these communities even more vulnerable to the virus. 

“Conservation International is working to provide resources and support to Indigenous peoples in the Amazon and elsewhere as they face not one, but two, crises: the destruction of their forests and the spread of the coronavirus.

“With the public’s attention focused on fighting the virus in populated areas, deforestation in places like the Amazon has now reached its highest rate in a decade and the needs of Indigenous peoples are being overlooked. Loosening of environmental regulations, rollbacks of protected areas, illegal mining and logging are bringing outsiders into Indigenous peoples’ territories — and with them, the virus, putting these vulnerable communities in even greater peril.

“Because COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, there are misconceptions that Indigenous peoples themselves are responsible for its spread due to their proximity to nature. The reality is that Indigenous peoples are nature’s best protectors and healthy, well-managed forests are less likely to spread disease. The health of these communities and their ancestral knowledge can be a vital asset in preventing future viruses.

“It must be pointed out that in these difficult times, Indigenous groups are setting an example and mobilizing to make a difference in response to the pandemic. Indigenous peoples in the Amazon, Africa and Asia are actively organizing their governance systems to effectively respond, drawing on their customs, language and traditional medicine in order to protect and prepare themselves. This has proven effective, resulting in less infections. In most cases, this has been done without government support and little international assistance. With more resources, these communities could build on their success and limit the spread of the virus even more. For example COICA, based in Ecuador, has brought together partners to form, the Amazon Emergency Fund and  has raised US$2.5 million  to provide urgently needed healthcare, food, medical supplies and emergency communication for villages in need. 

“Alongside Indigenous leaders, Conservation International is mobilizing US$60 million in aid for Indigenous peoples and local community-led conservation initiatives to support Indigenous peoples in the Amazon now and in the future. This includes a recent commitment of US$17.4 million from the French government to launch the “Our Future Forest - Amazonia Verde” project that will enable locally-led conservation efforts to protect 72.3 million hectares (nearly 179 million acres) of forest by 2025, ensuring healthier ecosystems and, ultimately, the health of people.

“In Southeast Asia, Indigenous communities are facing growing levels of food insecurity, including starvation, as virus restrictions have prevented travel to markets, in turn limiting income for those who rely on agriculture and the ability to trade. In response, Conservation International has adapted work to provide transportation, logistical support, food supplies and sanitary materials including soap and alcohol to remote vulnerable groups in the Philippines.

“Joining with partners like The Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, the Global Environment Facility and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, we aim to do what we can to learn from, stand with and aid the world’s original land stewards in protecting natural resources.

“The mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and lands and the exploitation of wildlife must stop — and it is crucial the issues facing these communities be brought into the global spotlight. Saving the Amazon and other Indigenous lands, protecting nature and most importantly respecting the ancestral knowledge and humanity of Indigenous peoples — Mother Nature’s most valued guardians — will have long-term positive impacts on the resiliency of the planet.”

About Conservation International

Conservation International works to protect the critical benefits that nature provides to people. Through science, partnerships and fieldwork, Conservation International is driving innovation and investments in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, supporting protections for critical habitats, and fostering economic development that is grounded in the conservation of nature. Conservation International works in 30 countries around the world, empowering societies at all levels to create a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable planet. Follow Conservation International's work on Conservation News, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.