Colombian indigenous people steel themselves against threat of Covid-19

By Klarem Valoyes

Bogota, Apr 2 (efe-epa).- Isolated from the rest of Colombian society in remote rainforest or highland areas, indigenous people are seeking refuge in their territories amid the coronavirus crisis while also leveraging ancestral knowhow to shield themselves from the pandemic.

These communities, which number roughly 1.9 million people and account for around 4.4 percent of the Andean nation’s population, have adopted a prevention strategy that, among other measures, includes setting up roadblocks to bar the passage of all vehicles except those transporting food and other items of basic necessity.

“We’ve divided our prevention and containment strategy into three specific actions: pedagogy for understanding the pandemic, territorial checkpoints manned by indigenous guards and the mobilization of the knowledge of experts in indigenous medicine,” Angel Jacanamejoy, secretary-general of the Association of Traditional Indigenous Authorities in Colombia, told Efe.

The indigenous guard, a defender of the rights, territory and autonomy of the indigenous communities, has been deployed from the northeastern department of La Guajira to the southern department of Amazonas to impede the arrival of tourists and members of private institutions, non-governmental organizations and international aid groups.

The first to take this step were the communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range in northern Colombia, home to the Arhuaco, Kogi, Wiwa and Kakuamo indigenous peoples, who urged the government to ban the entry of tourists to the Tayrona National Natural Park, a major Colombian attraction.

That measure has been extended virtually nationwide as indigenous groups have gradually sealed off their borders while also informing Colombia’s government of the needs of their communities, some of which lack access to clean water needed to maintain proper hygiene and prevent infection.

The nation’s indigenous peoples are among the groups most at-risk from Covid-19, with a 2016 Health Ministry report listing acute respiratory infections as the third-leading cause of death in those communities.

The United Nations Development Programme, meanwhile, says more than half of these people are below the poverty line and more than 40 percent live in conditions of extreme poverty, a reality that could severely hinder their ability to access basic health services.

The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) therefore has launched a contingency plan to “prevent the pandemic from arriving and spreading in indigenous territories,” a program being carried out by health personnel, traditional doctors, the indigenous guard and structures of the Alternative Indigenous and Social Movement (MAIS).

That strategy, adopted in coordination with national authorities, aims to strengthen these communities’ traditional health care systems by leveraging their medicinal plants and uses and customs, while also arranging for the government-provided delivery of humanitarian aid in the form of food, prevention supplies and potable water.

Now more than ever, indigenous people are promoting the ancestral medicinal practices and rituals which they say enable them to connect with nature and ward off harmful spirits.

The communities’ preventative measures have included ancestral dances and concoctions featuring medicinal plants and herbs such as incense, rue, rosemary and chamomile that are believed to possess sacred properties.

“All of this is part of a great bolstering of spirituality as an element that has historically allowed us to be physically and emotionally strong,” Jacanamejoy said.

But ONIC has expressed concern about a community of some 250 members of the Yukpa indigenous group residing in the northeastern city of Cucuta’s El Escobal neighborhood after two Covid-19 cases were detected there, saying those people are at high risk from the disease and that their situation is exacerbated by the overcrowded conditions in that district.

The army on Wednesday responded by militarizing a slum in that city, capital of Norte de Santander department, to ensure compliance with a nationwide quarantine and control the entry of migrants via irregular routes in the region.

The Yukpa, recognized by Colombia’s Constitutional Court as a collective victim of the nation’s decades-old armed conflict, migrated from their settlements in the Serrania del Perija mountain range to that city on the Colombian-Venezuelan border for humanitarian reasons.

“We’re very concerned because this is an extremely vulnerable indigenous community … that was already in a precarious health situation,” ONIC Senior Counselor Luis Fernando Arias told Efe.

Indigenous authorities estimate that 115,774 families in 16 Colombian departments are susceptible to infection if the virus’s pattern of contagion in Colombia continues.

They are therefore calling on the national government to make coronavirus prevention measures in their communities a priority and prevent Covid-19 from becoming one of the multiple mortal threats that indigenous people face. EFE-EPA

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