UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

COVID-19 in the Amazon: Old Vulnerabilities find New Light

By Marcelo Gonzales Montoya, UNA-NCA Digital Communications Associate and United Nations Development Programme Consultant

Para leer este artículo en español, entre aquí.

Patients with COVID-19 are treated in the corridor of a hospital in the Amazon city of Iquitos, on May 14, 2020 (AFP Photo/Cesar VonBancels)

On July 15, 2020, representatives from more than 100 indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon launched an international complaint on the flawed governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the virus endangering the lives of indigenous peoples, many of whom were already in a vulnerable state, it is clearer than ever before that COVID has only resurfaced deep inequalities that were already present in our society.

The Invisible Barrier

Compared to their fellow South Americans living in cities, rural communities are disproportionately poorer, suffer from food insecurity, and are more isolated from basic government facilities like schools and hospitals. These disadvantages and challenges compound to exacerbate gender gaps. Women and girls in rural areas, especially in the Amazon, are more likely to not finish their education, have teenage pregnancies, and be affected by gender-based violence.

In the last few decades, significant progress has been made in eliminating these gaps and reducing inequalities. Regions like Loreto, Peru, overcame astounding rates of +40% anemia in children at the beginning of the last decade. But a lot of work remains to be done.

At the center of this problem remains a long-standing communication problem between the government, indigenous federations and other development stakeholders. Without proper communication channels designed with these communities in mind, including services in their own languages, any initiative intended to serve the Amazon is doomed to fail from the start.

The Role of the UN

The United Nations and its allies have proven to be invaluable in the struggle against inequality for indigenous communities. Organizations like the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) work side by side with indigenous federations to prioritize their interests in policy-making, while the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) partners with national governments to enhance their response to climate change and natural disasters. This is facilitated with the support of international investors like the Global Environment Facility, which has a grant program designed specifically for rural development in areas like the Amazon.

Further support for sustainable development in indigenous Amazonian communities through potential action by the United Nations and its member states includes:

● Ensuring that countries remain in the UN System. The recent announcement of US departure from the World Health Organization has had a ripple effect on other agencies of the UN, many of which rely on support from member states. Actions like this are obstacles for international cooperation and impede progress on many fronts.

● Compliance with international norms and conventions, such as the Paris Agreement, and increasing pressure for other countries to join.

● Advocacy for global behavioral change regarding individual production and consumption. While the Amazon is the focus of conservation efforts for a number of multinational institutions, a broadly global effort to combat climate change is a vital tenet of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Indigenous communities in the Amazon face unique sustainable development challenges, including illegal extraction practices, drug trafficking, and the ever-present threat of climate change.

I’m proud to be working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Peru, guided by the goal of putting people at the center of development, making sure we leave no one behind. My role within the United Nations Association gives me the opportunity to facilitate the spread of information through numerous digital channels, making these conversations more accessible to everyone. Only by strengthening international alliances and creating new opportunities for effective multinational collaboration can we hope to reduce the impact COVID-19 is having on our communities, and ensure that economic and social recovery is inclusive and swift.

A New Hope

On August 9, 2020, we will commemorate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. And like every year, it’s an opportunity to spotlight the disproportionate vulnerability that continues to exist among indigenous communities, whom we’ve long treated as second-class citizens. Instead of viewing attempts at accessibility and inclusion as an additional effort, we ought to think of indigenous peoples and their perspectives as priorities, at the front and center of sustainable development work. We can never forget that indigenous peoples are independent agents of development and change.

This year’s theme is ‘COVID-19 and indigenous peoples’ resilience’, as COVID-19 has only exacerbated the long-existent gaps and inequalities faced by indigenous communities. But at the same time, this pandemic has placed a spotlight on these issues, on these communities and on possible solutions to the challenges they continue to face.This is an opportunity for local and national governments, for civil society and for international stakeholders to fundamentally change how development works in the Amazon. It’s a moment for us to reject a “return to normal”, and instead to change and rebuild a better future.

Marcelo Gonzales Montoya is the Digital Communications Associate at UNA-NCA. He’s currently pursuing his master’s in Media and Strategic Communication at the George Washington University. Marcelo works for the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute in Washington D.C., and remotely for the United Nations Development Programme in Peru.

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