By Daniela Brik
Llamchamacocha, Ecuador, Jun 29 (efe-epa).- Wearing a Barcelona soccer shirt, a boy from the Sápara indigenous people glides down a river in the Ecuadorian Amazon in a canoe.
He knows everything about the jungle, although he has no idea who Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi is.
By the time they are 10 years old children in this indigenous community nimbly navigate their canoes through the rivers that flow into the Amazon basin.
Waterways are the only connection between communities and the Sápara, the smallest of Ecuador’s native populations, are fighting for survival with a new threat on the horizon: Covid-19.
“As a people, we flagged a red light. The entry and return of people into our territory has been banned,” Nema Grefa Sápara, government council president, said this week.
Nestled in the southeastern province of Pastaza, just 570 people make up the Sápara community and the threat of coronavirus has forced them into isolation.
So far no infections have been registered, possibly because no roads lead to their settlements, but the size of their community would put them on the brink of extinction if the virus does arrive.
Among other Amazonian indigenous groups, such as the Waorani, 70 percent of the population have had Covid-19 symptoms.
Communities in the region have already witnessed the threat of fuel and mineral extraction and oil and pesticide spills which has forced them into isolation the result of which is a lack of access to healthcare and basic products.
Just five Sápara families of around 30 people reside in Llamchamacocha, perched at the mouth of the Conambo River.
It is one of 26 Sápara settlements which straddle 375,000 hectares of ancestral lands.
They survive by spearfishing, blowpipe hunting and harvesting yucca, bananas and vegetables in farms and small allotments.
Children play soccer every afternoon on a huge grass field with goalposts made of wooden sticks.
The main field, which sometimes gets swamped during tropical rains, is located next to a light aircraft runway where supplies and tourists arrive.
Unlike other indigenous communities in the region, the Sápara have blocked the construction of roads due to environmental concerns.
“If roads come, buses spout gasoline and pollute the river and loggers arrive,” says Ipiak, aged 16.
Community leader Manari Ushigua speaks of the ecocide they suffered when the population, once one of the largest in the Amazon, went from 20,000 to just over 500 in Ecuador with a similar situation in neighboring Peru.
The rubber boom between 1875 and 1914 also brought systematic slavery and brutality of indigenous people at the hands of planters.
The development project decimated entire populations and led to conflicts.