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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.


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.


The degradation of the forest due to deforestation and fires puts the livelihoods of Mayan communities, already threatened by the advance of the pandemic, at greater risk.  

These activities appear to be associated with the expansion of land for industrial agriculture and the order to continue the Mayan Train project, considered an "essential activity" by the Mexican government, denounced the Maya Alliance for the Bees (Kaab Nalo'on), which seeks to protect traditional beekeeping in the Yucatan Peninsula. 

Given the suspension of institutional activities, it is difficult to use appropriate mechanisms for people to access information and justice. Furthermore, continuing with the Mayan Train puts at risk the people involved in its construction. 

On May 14, 2020, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) issued precautionary measures for the indigenous peoples of the Yucatan peninsula, calling to "urgently" suspend the train's activities.


The Mexican government must generate information about the pandemic that is adapted to the uses and customs of the indigenous Mayan communities in Holpechén, Campeche, warned the Chenes Mayan Community Collective. The community said the current communication is not adequate, and demanded an official information strategy. 

The organization pointed out that people who work as day laborers and agricultural laborers in the fields belong to one of the sectors at greatest risk because they lack labor rights and access to medical services. This leaves them in a vulnerable position, should they acquire the novel coronavirus. 

In addition, community leaders pointed out that the mobility of people throughout the municipality is another risk factor for contagion, which increases in the absence of prevention measures. 


Two UN human rights experts said Brazil must immediately abandon misguided austerity policies that are endangering lives and increase spending to combat inequality and poverty exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The COVID-19 outbreak has magnified the adverse impacts of the 2016 constitutional amendment that limited public spending in Brazil for 20 years," said Independent Expert on human rights and foreign debt, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, and Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston. "The effects are now dramatically visible in the current crisis.

The experts noted that, for instance, only 10 percent of Brazilian municipalities have intensive care beds and the Unified Health System does not even have half the number of hospital beds recommended by the World Health Organization.

They have repeatedly expressed concern that the measures taken in Brazil were prioritizing the economy over people's lives.


Brazil's indigenous communities are at risk of contracting COVID-19 and of not receiving adequate care due to invasions into their territories, the progressive dismantling of policies to care for indigenous peoples, and a weakened health system.

The state of Amazonas, where half of the population is indigenous, has the second highest mortality rate from COVID-19 in Brazil (as of April 2020). Only in Manaus, the capital, are there intensive care units and they are already overstretched.

Added to this is the increase in invasions and illegal activities in indigenous territories, such as illegal garimpo (mining), and wildlife and timber trafficking. In March, deforestation rates increased by almost 30%.

Also in March, a group of missionaries flew over areas inhabited by isolated and uncontacted indigenous peoples, violating an ordinance of the Federal Public Ministry to avoid contact with these peoples to prevent the spread of the virus.

AIDA provided the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) with detailed information on this series of violations of indigenous rights.


In the context of the emergency unleashed by COVID-19, AIDA urges Latin American States to comply with their obligations in environmental and human rights protection, and refrain from promoting setbacks in this regard through harmful regulatory changes or the approval of projects without adequate social and environmental damage assessment.

We also express concern about the lack of conditions to guarantee the rights to participation and access to environmental information for people affected by high-risk projects and public policy decisions.

Therefore, AIDA calls on the States of the region to suspend the approval of environmental and other official permits for sensitive projects unrelated to the response to the health crisis, until such time as the above-mentioned rights can be adequately guaranteed.

This implies taking into account that the necessary conditions do not currently exist for people affected by projects to go to court to defend themselves.


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