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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.

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.

Alert

In the 1970s and 1980s, the opening of roads and the gold rush brought diseases such as malaria and measles to the Amazon, killing 13 percent of the Yanomami population. Now, the thousands of miners in the Yanomami Indian Territory (TIY) are vectors for transmission of the novel coronavirus, putting an already very vulnerable population at risk of mass contamination.

Mining activity has intensified with the rising price of gold on the international market. This, added to other factors—including the dismantling of environmental policy, which is now anti-fiscal and systematically promoted by the current federal government, and the President's repeated position in favor of mining— has led to the invasion of indigenous lands.

The 20,000 miners installed inthe TIY are today the main vector of transmission of the pandemic. According to one study, nearly 40 percent of the Yanomami living near the illegal mining areas in that indigenous territory could be infected with COVID-19.

It is the country's most vulnerable indigenous territory. Nearly half of its population lives in communities located less than five kilometres from an illegal mining area. The Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA) calculated different scenarios for the transmission of the pandemic in those areas. In the worst case scenario, out of a total of 13,889 indigenous people, 5,603 Yanomami (equivalent to 40 percent) could be infected with the virus. If the lethality is double that of the non-indigenous population, between 207 and 896 Yanomami (6.4 percent) may die as a result of COVID-19. On April 19, the first death occurred in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory.

We must mobilize the international community and pressure the Brazilian government to remove the illegal invaders from the territory. The Yanomami must be able to enter social isolation in order to guarantee their survival.

Show your solidarity with the Yanomami's cry for help against a historic evil, now even more deadly.

Analysis

In most Latin American nations, governments have implemented health and social isolation measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Within the framework of these restrictions, exceptions have been established for activities considered essential, including emergency care, the provision of health services, and the marketing and supply of essential goods.  

However, the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru have also exempted mining and oil activities from the restrictions, stating they are in the national interest.  

The exceptional treatment accorded to extractive activities in some countries of the region has significantly increased the vulnerability of indigenous peoples, and amplified the risks and threats they face, since these operations are carried out in their territories. 

In addition, the entry and exit of workers without proper health measures diminishes the effectiveness of the protective measures adopted by these peoples, such as epidemiological fences or social isolation. Thus, there is an increase in the spread of the virus and in the number of infected persons. In addition, in practice, these rural populations have little or no access to the health and sanitation services needed to deal with a health crisis such as that generated by COVID-19.  

Alert

Indigenous leaders of the Bolivian Amazon denounced the continuation of mining activities in the community of Santa Rosa de Carura, North of La Paz, home of the Leco people. 

The Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of the East, Chaco and Bolivian Amazon (CIDOB) and the Coordinating Body for the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) called on the Ministry of Mining the close gold mining operations in the area, currently in full operation despite the pandemic.  

The operations, they denounced, were established without the free, prior and informed consent of local communities, who were forced to temporarily leave their territory due to the effects on the river's course.  

In addition, CIDOB and COICA urged the Bolivian government to prioritize healthcare for indigenous peoples. In s letter to the president, made public on May 22, they wrote: "Our brothers and sisters are dying every day, abandoned to their fate without any medical attention, and now foreigners are allowed to exploit our natural resources, giving them away left and right.” 

Competent authorities in mining and environmental issues must control compliance with environmental regulations, demand compliance with environmental licensing for mining activities, and take the actions necessary to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.  

Alert

In a Supreme Decree approved on May 9, Bolivia established a shortened procedure for the introduction and use of genetically modified seeds of corn, sugar cane, cotton, wheat and soybeans. In doing so, the government cited the public health emergency caused by COVID-19.  

Genetically modified organisms put public health at risk due to the use of highly toxic agrochemicals, contaminate water and soil, and affect the food sovereignty of the people. They also negatively impact local culture, benefiting large agribusinesses to the detriment of small-scale production. 

Bolivia is a secondary center of origin of maize. Allowing the introduction of genetically modified corn seeds into the country puts the conservation of up to 77 native corn breeds at risk, due to the risk of genetic contamination. Native corn sustains the food sovereignty and biocultural richness of indigenous peoples and rural populations. 

The decree goes against the national Constitution, the Framework Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well, and other 10 regulations currently in force. For this reason, more than 100 civil society organizations and the Ombudsman's Office initiated an action of unconstitutionality and demanded the repeal of the Supreme Decree.    

Analysis

Businessmen have asked the Colombian government to "simplify environmental procedures" under the argument of the pandemic and as a means for the continuity of processes in the midst of the obligatory isolation imposed on the country. Related to this request are several actions that violate fundamental human rights, mainly of ethnic and rural communities.

One of the first actions was the attempt to simplify prior consultation and other procedures. The proposal was to make them virtual. In response, the indigenous communities and the Office of the Procurator requested the Ministry of the Interior to respect fundamental rights and to reverse the measure, which was accepted. However, the quest to change the way consultations are conducted continues.

The National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA), at the request of the Ministry of the Environment, is promoting several virtual environmental hearings, even proposing to hold them on radio, Facebook and YouTube. With the issuance of Resolution 642 of April 13, 2020, the ANLA opened the way for participation to be virtual.

The problem is that communication in these spaces is unilateral, annulling the possibility of discussing technical issues and presenting an obstacle for those with limited access to the Internet. In Colombia, and across Latin America, the rights of access to information, justice and participation are among the most violated.

We must activate all the alerts so that the pandemic does not become an excuse to continue violating them. It is necessary to suspend the proceedings until there are guarantees for the due exercise of the right to participation and for national and international monitoring.

Analysis

Indigenous and afro-descendant peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean have been essential actors in the protection of nature, of key ecosystems and, in short, of the lives of all beings that inhabit the planet.

At the same time, they have historically suffered discrimination, exclusion and the violation of their rights, seeing their survival threatened.

In the context of the global health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the vulnerability of indigenous and afro-descendant peoples in the regionhas increased due to: the lack of guarantees for their economic social, culture and environmental rights; the need for differentiated response measures; and the relaxation of environmental and participatory processes.

Protecting these peoples so that the pandemic does not threaten their lives and integrity is a moral and historic duty, and an international obligation of all States. We’ve outlined five measures States can take to immediately protect these vulnerable communities.

Alert

Health care for indigenous peoples in Brazil is precarious and on the road to tragedy. There is a clear lack of State capacity to control the spread of the virus among these communities.

The State, through its agencies, has acted in such a way as to deny indigenous identity and ignore its obligation to provide specialized medical care appropriate to indigenous customs and traditions.

The methodology used by the State, which distinguishes between indigenous people in urban and rural areas, helps to hide the real dimension of the calamity being experienced, and also demonstrates the discrimination that has been reported.

The rapid spread of the disease among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon is also due to the lack of planning by the federal government to deliver R$ 600 in emergency aid.  Without alternatives to receive the social benefit, the indigenous people are forced to go to the cities and, on their return, risk brining the virus back to their villages. The aid allows indigenous families to buy food and health supplies such as medicine.  

The mayor of Manaus said he fears a genocide of indigenous people. "It is a crime against humanity that is being practiced here in my state, here in my region," Arthur Virgílio Neto said in a video released May 19. 

Alert

A coalition of organizations in Colombia rejects the imposition of what they are calling a virtual pseudo-hearing on the proposed return of aerial spraying with glyphosate.

"We believe that the public health emergency in the country caused by COVID-19 has been used to accelerate the return of glyphosate spraying in an arbitrary, restrictive, disproportionate, illegitimate and illegal manner."

The "virtual" environmental public hearing is not authorized by law and, on the contrary, contravenes several legal provisions on the form and conditions in which public environmental hearings should be held.

The organizations filed a tutelary action that seeks to protect the rights of access to information; effective participation in environmental decision making with environmental justice criteria; consultation and free, prior and informed consent; as well as the principles of transparency and due process. 

Alert

The novel coronavirus pandemic is suffocating the health system of the municipality of Altamira (Pará), in the Xingu region of Brazil. Health professionals and the population in general lack medicine, personal protective equipment and, above all, sufficient beds in the face of increased demand.

The city of Altamira has only nine beds in the intensive care unit (ICU) and is located 816 km from the larger city of Belém in northeastern Brazil. These beds are the only ones to meet the growing needs of 115,000 local inhabitants and of other cities in the region, which in total amount to more than 400,000 people. This includes the riverside inhabitants and indigenous people of the area who should be treated in these hospitals.

There are no more ICUs available and no tests for COVID-19. ICU beds are being used for adults. The next nearest hospital would be in Santarém, 500 km from Altamira. This is in addition to the fact that the inhabitants of this city are already suffering from impacts on their health and integrity from the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant and now from the Belo Sun mine.

Sixty-eight doctors reported this situation to the Regional Medical Council.

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