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Alerts: COVID-19 in Latin America

The pandemic threatens the environment and human rights in the region

The impacts of the pandemic have extended far beyond health systems. Authorities have changed forms of realizing consultations, relaxed protection and surveillance measures, and neglected the most vulnerable populations, such as indigenous peoples, rural communities and human rights defenders. This—added to the increase in activities that impact the environment, threats and offenses—poses a worrying risk of human rights violations in the region.

Alert

According to independent monitoring carried out by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), as of August 10, the cases of COVID-19 among indigenous peoples exceeded 23,000, while the number of deaths reached 652.

These figures are higher than those reported by the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (SESAI), which counts 17,611 infections and 311 deaths. However, official data only takes into account homologated indigenous lands and not the indigenous peoples living outside them. APIB's is carried out by the National Committee for Indigenous Life and Memory, with the support of indigenous organizations and considering, in addition to the data from SESAI, those registered by the municipal and state Health Secretariats and by the Public Ministry.

The rapid spread of the pandemic among indigenous people is a cause for concern due to the vulnerability of this population, which lacks adequate medical care and whose lands are being invaded, and because of insufficient and inadequate government measures to protect them.

A major factor of contagion is the Amazon River, the main road linking many riverine communities. Inhabitants travel along the river in boats carrying about 150 people, without any distance between them, to reach the cities in search of medical supplies or food, or to be treated in a hospital. The hospital network is insufficient to cover the entire region. In fact, the six cities in Brazil with the highest exposure to the novel coronavirus are located along the river. 

Another contagion factor for the indigenous population is the lack of adequate health and protection measures by the State, which has resulted in health workers becoming potential carriers of the virus and infecting indigenous peoples upon arrival to their communities. By early July, more than one thousand nurses and doctors from SESAI had tested positive for COVID-19.

Medical professionals and indigenous leaders say the workers in this sector may have unwittingly endangered the communities they were trying to help, since they lacked proper protective equipment and access to sufficient testing.

Alert

Brazil's Supreme Court ordered a series of measures to contain COVID-19 infections and deaths among the country's indigenous population. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) and some political parties. In it, they denounce the government's failure to comply with constitutional precepts and advocate the adoption of greater governmental measures to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus among indigenous peoples.

The government has failed to guarantee the isolation of ethnic communities since extractive activities are being carried out in their territories. Workers that enter indigenous areas are a factor in the spread of the virus. In addition, the indigenous population is affected by an insufficient hospital network and lack of access to timely information, such as on virus testing and funeral protocols.

"Indigenous peoples are especially vulnerable to infectious diseases, for which they have low immunity and a mortality rate higher than the national average. There are indications of an accelerated expansion of COVID-19 among members and allegations that the government's efforts to stop its spread are insufficient," states the ruling signed by Luis Roberto Barros, a judge of the Court.

The measures determined by the Court include the installation of sanitary barriers to protect indigenous peoples who have no contact with the outside world and those who have been in recent contact with society; the creation of a "situation room" with the participation of members of the government, APIB, the Attorney General's Office and the Federal Public Defender's Office; and the elaboration, within 30 days, of a plan to confront the disease in indigenous peoples. That plan should include efforts to control the entry of intruders into indigenous lands, and be created with the participation of the communities themselves and the National Human Rights Council.

Finally, the Court ordered that all indigenous people, including those living in urban areas, should be covered by the Indigenous Health Care Subsystem, which had until now provided only limited assistance to indigenous people living in demarcated areas.

Analysis

The pandemic is impacting our entire food system, and its prolongation will affect the region's most vulnerable populations if urgent measures are not taken, warned the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in a report that is part of a series of assessments on the expansion of COVID-19.   

Referring to previous experiences, such as MERS, the Commission warned that the negative effects of this pandemic on food security "will be uneven and more intense for countries, regions and populations in a situation of greater vulnerability." Children, adolescents, indigenous people, women, people with low levels of education and rural populations are the most affected by poverty, a determining factor of vulnerability.   

Progress in reducing poverty and undernourishment could be affected by the looming economic crisis. The agency highlighted the case of the high Andean and Amazonian regions because of their limited connectivity and an agricultural system more dependent on the market. They call for boosting self-consumption when an economic disruption occurs, as well as promoting a healthier diet.   

Although the report focuses on the conservation of production chains and care for the food market, it recommends increasing "the integration between agriculture and biodiversity," as "the environmental sustainability of agriculture and food systems is a demand of society that will become more powerful." It also recalls that basic ecological balances cannot be broken with impunity.  

To avoid the crisis, ECLAC called for the principle of "building back better" because while food systems were already undergoing transformation due to climate change, technology and demand, "the pandemic makes it necessary to strengthen resilience and social inclusion."  

Analysis

The massive spread of COVID-19 has created a global health crisis, leaving millions of people sick and thousands dead.

Due to the nature of the disease and the ease of contagion, protective and biosecurity measures have been implemented on a massive scale. These include confinement and safe distancing, constant disinfection of hands and surfaces, and the use disinfectant bottles, bags, and personal protective equipment like mouthpieces, masks, gloves, and other objects.

Unfortunately, plastic—single-use plastic, in particular—is the primary material used to make these objects, which implies an indiscriminate increase in the use and disposal of this material.

The processes needed to manage those single-use plastics have become another major challenge in the face of a crisis that is collapsing economies and health systems.

It’s clear that our greatest global concern is to defeat the pandemic, and prevent more deaths and infections. But also of concern are the side effects it’s producing, like the backsliding of global efforts to reduce plastic waste and prevent environmental damage.

We must continue the global debate on plastics and work together to find effective alternatives, taking into account the economic recovery of the sectors most affected by the crisis.

Alert

In a series of webinars organized by AIDA, experts debunked the argument for promoting extractivism as a solution to the current economic crisis. 

In the context of the global health pandemic, Latin American governments have supported proposals to expand and strengthen mining and energy extractivism as a way out of the economic downturn. In doing so, they’ve ignored the economic and socio-environmental costs that extractive activities imply in the medium and long term. 

Government support has in some cases translated into attempts to make the procedures for authorizing mining and hydrocarbon projects more flexible and/or streamlined, ignoring the legal obligation to consult and obtain the free, prior and informed consent of affected communities.  

In two online seminars, specialists in the field explained in detail the true costs of extractivism, demonstrating that betting on initiatives of this type in the current situation is far from being society’s best way forward.  

The panel of experts included Eduardo Gudynas, researcher at the Latin American Center for Social Ecology; Natalia Greene, president of the Ecuadorian Committee for the Defense of Nature and the Environment; Fernanda Hopenhaym, sociologist specializing in Latin American studies and co-executive director of PODER; and Luis Álvaro Pardo, economist and journalist, specializing in Mining and Energy Law and Constitutional Law. 

Alert

The Alliance for a Colombia Free of Fracking alerted the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the Colombian government is moving forward with pilot fracking projects in the midst of the pandemic, thus denying citizens access to information and justice.

Although the process in which the State Council declared the judicial moratorium on fracking is suspended due to the pandemic, the high court had established that the implementation of pilot projects is conditioned to their being of a scientific nature and having robust institutions, social license, and technology of minimum impact.

The government, however, "has systematically mocked these demands," the Alliance denounced.

In an effort to advance fracking, and defiance of the moratorium, the government: published its first decree on the pilot projects during the Christmas season, discouraging citizen participation and public debate; tried to placate environmental claims and deceive its people by signing the Escazú Agreement, with no intention of ratification (without which the agreement is non-binding); issued a second decree in which it continues to ignore the demands of the Council of State; continued to regulate this decree in the midst of the pandemic, with the courts closed and without public access to information, participation and justice; and continues to develop new norms for the advancement of fracking in Colombia.

"It will only be possible to get out of this crisis with a vital turn towards other forms of energy production and use that are totally based on the democratic principles of our Constitution and the statements of the Commission," the Alliance said in a public statement upon submitting the alert.

Analysis

Every day men and women around the world dedicate their lives to protecting the ecosystems upon which entire communities and other living things depend. This work, essential for the protection of our planet, is carried out in legal, social, and political spheres. 

Unfortunately, those who defend the environment are victims of threats and assassinations. For many years now, Latin America has been the most dangerous region in the world to be an environmental defender, accounting for nearly 60 percent of these crimes. This, despite the fact that national and regional governments recognize human rights like free speech and a healthy environment, as well as the rights of nature.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the grave risk facing environmental defenders has not ceased. Despite social distancing and other measures adopted to slow the spread of the virus, violence aimed at defenders has continued. 

It is important to consider that the pandemic strains the networks of protections that exist to respond to emergencies, putting environmental defenders at increased risk.  This, combined with the lack of will or ability for institutions to respond to any problems other than the current health crisis, makes for a complicated security situation.  

In effect, States must respect and guarantee human rights at all times. These are obligations that cannot be deferred, even in emergency situations, and must be emphasized and strengthened for those at risk, like environmental defenders.

Analysis

"Voices from the Ground,” a recent collaborative global study, reveals that the mining industry has ignored the risks of COVID-19 and continues to operate around the world. What’s more, it appears mining companies are taking advantage of the health emergency to cover up the socio-environmental impacts of their operations.

The exhaustive report is based on the review of nearly 500 journalistic sources, press releases and reports on mining in the context of the pandemic. Clear patterns emerged from the data, demonstrating ways in which companies were actually benefitting from the global health crisis.

Mining companies and many governments have been pushing for mining to be considered an essential activity. By allowing operations to continue despite the risks, the sector has become a major vector for the spread of the virus to mine workers and rural communities. At the same time, governments around the world are adopting extraordinary measures that restrict the actions of people affected by mining activities.

These companies are also “using the pandemic as an opportunity to wash their dirty laundry," by presenting themselves to the public as saviors—providing virus testing, food distribution and donations to rural communities. All the while, the industry has been pushing forward efforts to streamline decision-making processes and create new standards that favor their operations over people and the planet.

Alert

In the second half of the 20th century, the Yuquis were the final indigenous group to be contacted in Bolivia. They now live in a portion of their ancestral territory in the Amazon rainforest. Today, the community is going through a dizzying process of acculturation, and facing a pulmonary mycosis epidemic that is diminishing its already scarce population. Currently, only 326 yuquis remain.

Despite meeting the COVID-10 health crisis with isolation, on June 2 the first cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in the Yuqui town: four people tested positive, including the only two doctors in the community. This happened despite of warning of the danger facing indigenous peoples, and the lack of an official registry in the Ministry of Health of the sick people who have self-identified as indigenous.

The Yuqui people are considered to be at high risk of vulnerability due to diseases such as pulmonary mycosis, tuberculosis, anaemia and malnutrition. For this reason, in 2014, the Departmental Legislative Assembly of Cochabamba issued a law to protect them from the risk of extinction. The law is supported by the Political Constitution of the State and the Law for the Protection of Native Indigenous Nations and Peoples in Situations of High Vulnerability.

Given the current risk of ethnocide, the State has an obligation to protect the health of the most vulnerable indigenous peoples. Health authorities must take urgent measures to address the situation of infected persons, to test the entire population, and to adopt adequate biosecurity measures to prevent contagion.

In the face of State inaction, the Yuqui people have decided to isolate themselves, yet they are in need of food and medicine. A campaign is underway to collect economic aid through Banco de Crédito account # 701-1529291-3-21 in the name of CEJIS (NIT/ID: 1025301021).

Statement

COVID-19 has put at serious risk the survival and rights of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, who hold deep knowledge of one of the planet’s richest ecosystems.

The virus is "one of the greatest threats to the ways of life of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon," warned the UN Human Rights Offices for South America, Colombia and the Bolivia, together with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), highlighting the situation of isolated peoples, inequality, the gender perspective, and respect for consultation processes.

The organizations called for "the implementation of culturally appropriate socioeconomic support for these indigenous peoples of South America, as well as support for their self-care measures, strengthening the participation of indigenous authorities in the decisions that are made and monitoring the effectiveness of measures aimed at protecting their rights.”

They urged States with sovereignty in the region to protect the survival and rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin, particularly those in voluntary isolation or in the phase of initial contact.

The Amazon is inhabited by more than 420 indigenous communities—at least 60 of them in voluntary isolation—and is one of the most naturally and culturally diverse regions in the world. The spread of COVID-19 has made evident the historical absence or limited presence of the State in many territories and its insufficient capacity to meet the needs of these peoples, the declaration explains.

The human rights bodies also called for the protection of the rights of indigenous women, who are at risk of suffering a disproportionate impact during the pandemic, due to their role in the informal economy and as caregivers. They called for ensuring that indigenous women benefit equally from social protection measures, that domestic violence be addressed, and that overburdened health systems do not result in increased maternal mortality.

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