Colombia: Indigenous Peoples at risk from the spread of the pandemic and lack of guarantees for survival

Humanitarian aid for the Nukak

The current health emergency due to the spread of the Coronavirus Disease for indigenous peoples in Colombia shows all the neglect that affects vulnerable populations. A bulletin of the Territorial Monitoring System – SMT – of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia -ONIC-, published on May 11, illustrates how in Colombia there are 321,611 indigenous families on alert due to the risk of contagion of the new pandemic, for being close to populated areas where confirmed cases of the presence of the virus have been reported, or for being close to border areas where cases have been reported or for being in municipalities that do not have the capacity to respond to a health crisis like this; ONIC says in its report that out of the indigenous families at risk, 85,199 are in Indigenous Reservations, 236,412 are located in their Ancestral Territories and 2,139 more live in urban contexts.

Bulletin 23 of the SMT says that 146 indigenous reservations in Colombia have been identified as high risk for Coronavirus, where 142 people have been confirmed as Covid19 contagion cases in 13 Indigenous Communities and eight indigenous people have lost their lives due to this disease. It is noteworthy that, according to the report, there are ten ethnic communities under special observation and monitoring, nine of which are to be found in border territories with Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and Panama.

According to the last national population census of 2018 in Colombia there are 115 indigenous peoples. These are nomadic, semi-nomadic, sedentary peoples, and indigenous communities living in urban contexts, with marked differences in their economy and ways of living; Many of the indigenous communities are affected by the Colombian internal armed conflict and the economic interests over their territories, which have generated situations of confinement or forced displacement, affecting their cultural identity and physical survival.

In Akubadaura we have been monitoring the situation of the Nukak People, last indigenous peoples in initial contact in Colombia, which, with no more than 600 members, lives in the Amazon region. The Nukak, being nomads, have seen their territory drastically reduced and their ancestral culture affected by the armed conflict, the expansion of the agricultural frontier and the pressure on their territory. Fearing the contagion of the virus and their high epidemiological vulnerability, the Nukak decided to isolate themselves in the depths of the jungle of the Guaviare Province, as the only measure to avoid the spread of a disease that threatens their survival.

In 1988 and 1993, the Nukak lost 40% of the members of their community when they suffered the flu after the first contacts with the western world, so the pandemic caused by the Covid-19 Coronavirus represents a survival threat for this community. Being the last indigenous community in initial contact in Colombia, the Nukak are at risk of physical and cultural extermination.

In addition, has reported how a group of hunters and gatherers like the Nukak, does not have blowguns to hunt, this culturally own basic hunting tool, made from a palm that is only available in a remote region, with limited access due to the presence of armed actors, their territorial rights are being violated, affecting their mobility and traditional food, causing problems of malnutrition and health problems.

Akubadaura, has been coordinating actions with local authorities to give support and humanitarian aid to the Nukak in order to reduce the ongoing tensions, however, the actions that are required go beyond the response to emergencies, once again glimpsing the need to comply and materialization of court rulings and precautionary measures issued by the Constitutional Court of Colombia in which the Agencies responsible for the case do not show significant progress to attend the needs of the Nukak. Although humanitarian aid has been delivered and emergency contact mechanisms have been established for this population, suitable protocols are expected for health care in the territories.

Another indigenous community that has been monitored is the Peñas Blancas Indigenous community in Riosucio in the Urabá jungles in the Choco Province, in northern Colombia, close to the border with Panama, where the health authorities of the town of its jurisdiction took a month to attend and give health care to the indigenous community, after knowing in advance the alert for possible contagion of respiratory diseases with various symptoms in 97 people and of which, three people, two babies of three and four months and a 61-year-old woman died without medical treatment.

The report of the medical commission that visited the Emberá indicates that the 97 cases of people reported and that were diagnosed, are indeed sick, each person evaluated presents different symptoms that were listed by the medical commission as abscesses, diarrhea and gastroenteritis, fever, acute respiratory disease, common colds and parasitosis. That’s the conclusion of the technical report of the medical commission that spent two days visiting this community and that was presented by the Mayor of Ríosucio on Wednesday, April 22, where it reads: “during the visit to the indigenous community there were no cases of respiratory disease that could suggest Covid19, due to an epidemiological link cases of COVID-19 are ruled out.”

The health authorities of Riosucio discard the contagion of Coronavirus Disease due to “epidemiological link” and following protocols of the Ministry of Health, but acknowledges that it does not have detection tests, which shows the precariousness of health care, vulnerability and the extreme conditions that this population lives, as well as the abandonment of the Government to which this community is relegated. Similar cases have been reported from the territory in other Emberá communities without confirmation and real guarantees of timely and adequate care by the authorities, regarding the state of health of the members of these communities.

Out of the indigenous communities living in urban contexts we have accompanied the Emberá community, displaced in Bogotá. In addition to being outside their territory, displaced by the armed conflict, in the city they have faced eviction from the shelter they occupied, with difficulties in feeding themselves and without being able to sell their handicrafts due to being in mandatory preventive isolation decreed by the National Government. Although this community has received attention from the Mayor of Bogotá and the Victims ‘Attention Unit of the National Government, Akubadaura and the District Victims’ Work Table continue to monitor and supervise the attention given to this population.

The situation of the Nukak in Guaviare, the Emberas of Peñas Blancas in Chocó and the displaced Emberas in Bogotá is just a small sample of what indigenous peoples are experiencing in Colombia, not to mention the situation of indigenous populations of the Amazon that corresponds to a whole new situation where the spread of the disease is showing the lack of capacity by authorities to provide medical care for cases and where indigenous people have already died. According to a report given by the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon OPIAC – in Leticia, the capital cioty of the Amazon province, there are 801 confirmed cases of Coronavirus disease, 30 of which are indigenous.

This emergency has evidenced all the neglects, the lack of basic services in health, food, housing and drinking water that indigenous peoples require, not only due to the effects of the pandemic, but for the same right to access to minimum satisfactory needs of indigenous peoples and where the institutional offer must be in accordance with the needs and conditions of each community, cultural differences makes it necessary to rethink that the use of the same model is not suitable for all indigenous peoples. Around 70 indigenous peoples in Colombia are at risk of physical and cultural extermination, many of them with populations of less than a thousand survivors. The pandemic for these peoples could directly mean their disappearance and with them, the ancient wisdom of protecting the jungles, forests and mountains. Protecting them depends on the will of Government, and the capacity that exists from local, regional and National governments, in dialogue with border governments, to coordinate real actions of prevention and attention, in dialogue, respect and strengthening of the knowledge of indigenous communities and their own protection mechanisms, and for which it is essential that there be real institutional wills and adequate, sufficient and timely availability of the necessary resources, with the breadth and speed that this health emergency requires.