Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic over 18 million people have been confirmed to have contracted the disease and almost 700,000 have died as a result. The disease continues to surge in North and South America, and is exploding anew in places that previously had it under control. Densely populated urban areas have garnered most of the media attention and public health response. What has been largely ignored is the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples.
Geographically isolated, politically marginalized, economically insecure and neglected by national public health services, Indigenous Peoples are at high risk of dying from COVID-19 should they contract the disease. The risk is particularly acute because most Indigenous communities have wholly inadequate access to personal protective equipment and lack Western medicines and facilities.
Supporting Indigenous Peoples in their efforts to prevent COVID-19 from spreading within their communities is vital to minimize sickness and deaths. For example, formal rights over their traditional territories has enabled the Lecos, Quechua, and Tacana Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia to exercise legal control over access to their lands and close their borders to protect their people. The resources found within their lands are a key element to support their basic needs during this pandemic and their governance structures must be recognized, supported and strengthened. Similarly, in Canada, respecting First Nations and Inuit efforts to self-isolate and restrict non‐residents from entering is critical for the health and well-being of their communities.
But while controlling the spread of the disease and ensuring that Indigenous Peoples who are sick have access to timely and effective treatment are, of course, essential, it is becoming increasingly clear that alone they are not sufficient to prevent COVID-19 from destroying communities. The world is focused on both controlling the pandemic and rebuilding shattered industrial economies. There is a growing risk that under-resourced and COVID-19 distracted governments will be unable to control unethical private sector companies from logging the forests, mining the lands, and fishing the waters of Indigenous Peoples — in the process abrogating Indigenous Peoples’ territorial rights. In the absence of government oversight and investment, civil society groups, like WCS, are vital to supporting the efforts of Indigenous Peoples to prevent unscrupulous actors from taking advantage of a governance vacuum to take resources that do not belong to them.
All strategies to respond to the pandemic and the economic havoc it has wreaked must respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples over their territories and resources, and maintain a diverse and healthy planet.
All strategies to respond to the pandemic and the economic havoc it has wreaked must respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples over their territories and resources, and maintain a diverse and healthy planet. International conservation organizations play an important role, by practically and publicly supporting the efforts of Indigenous Peoples to secure and exercise their legitimate rights to decide who can access and use their territorial resources. WCS currently supports the efforts of 205 groups of Indigenous Peoples in 39 countries around the world to protect their lands and waters. We must all redouble our efforts in the months ahead.
This is not just an issue of rights. Wise stewardship of natural resources by Indigenous Peoples within their traditional territories has had a profoundly positive impact on the conservation of plant and animal species on land and in rivers, lakes and coastal waters. Supporting the rights of Indigenous Peoples is not just a moral imperative but is an essential pathway to conserve the planet’s biodiversity and the ecological systems that all of humanity depends on.
Keeping terrestrial landscapes intact with limited industrial footprint such as roads is critical to avoiding spillover of zoonotic disease from wildlife to people, as appears to have happened in the case of COVID-19 (and previously with Ebola, SARS, MERS, and many of the other global infectious disease outbreaks of recent decades). The planet’s last ecologically intact places exist because Indigenous Peoples live in them and rely on them for their wellbeing and cultural sense of self.
Any government policy that enables the extraction of natural resources or the conversion of intact ecosystems in the name of economic recovery within the territories of Indigenous Peoples without their formal consent, will be a continuation of clearly unjust and illegitimate colonial actions. Practices that have displaced and alienated Indigenous Peoples from their lands and waters, physically, economically, and spiritually. Any such policies will be unlikely to contribute equitably to economic recovery, will destroy the foundation of Indigenous Peoples ways of life, wellbeing and cultural identity, will increase emissions of global warming gases and biodiversity loss, and will fragment intact ecosystems increasing the human-wildlife interface and the risk of future spillover and spread of wildlife diseases in people.
For Indigenous Peoples around the world to survive through this pandemic — both as peoples and as individuals — governments must respect and enforce their territorial rights, and fulfill their duty to provide the public health services that are currently lacking and that Indigenous Peoples so desperately need. At the same time, governments must not, in the false name of economic recovery, purposefully or through negligence, revoke Indigenous Peoples’ authority to determine how lands and waters within their traditional territories will be used and by whom.
David Wilkie is Executive Director of Rights and Communities at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).