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COVID-19 and the Amazon: Indigenous Peoples, Conservation Under Threat

The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly having an effect on the human population around the world, but its impact on the environment, especially in terms of conservation, is less publicized. The Amazon rainforest is the world’s largest rainforest. According to scientists, its preservation is vital to combat global warming due to its ability to absorb vast amounts of greenhouse gas. However, as of April 2020, destruction of the rainforest has risen by 64% due to an increase in illegal logging as a result of a decreased presence of environmental agents on site because of COVID-19. Consequently, these illegal logging practices continue to jeopardize the integrity of the rainforest at this time.

Similarly, in Africa, poaching has significantly increased as a result of COVID-19 and the collapse of the $30 billion tourism industry. Due to unemployment, thousands of people are now turning towards wild animals for food. Furthermore, with the lack of rangers on site, many endangered species such as black rhinos and mountain gorillas are being killed by poachers. Moreover, in Colombia, there has been a spike in big cat poaching due to a lack of rangers on site and a delay in funding due to the pandemic. As the tourism industry collapses, many sites can no longer finance their operations and continue their conservation, which may result in a huge ecological impact after we emerge from this pandemic.

While the presence of rangers and environmental enforcers decrease in the Amazon Rainforest, economic activity along the Amazon river persists as per the decision by Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro. As a result, the health and survival of Indigenous communities in the Amazon are at elevated risk. In April 2020, the first death due to COVID-19 of an Indigenous 15-year-old boy of the Yanomami tribe was reported. As of May 2020, about 500-600 Indigenous People of the Amazon gateway city of Manaus are feared to have died of COVID-19. Leticia, a city on the banks of the Amazon, is now recording Colombia’s highest rate of infection, highlighting the waterway as the source of viral transmission.

This pandemic has exposed how the health risk of Indigenous communities is being disregarded and aggravated. These communities have limited medical personnel and healthcare infrastructure or technology to cope with a pandemic of the present scale. The hostile disposition of the Bolsonaro government has heightened the historical vulnerability of Indigenous Peoples at time of unprecedented crisis. As of May 5, 2020, the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA), sponsored by the Rainforest Foundation US, announced the launch of an emergency fund to raise a total of $8 million over 60 days to provide food, medicine and protective equipment to Indigenous communities at risk.

The Indigenous People of the Amazon are the guardians of the forest. Environmental protection efforts in this region must now be turned towards a humanitarian response to protect these vulnerable groups. The Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s most valuable ecological and biological resources and without it we lose a vital resource and knowledge base in combatting climate change. In the midst of COVID-19, the ecological impacts on the Amazon look to be just as severe as those of human health.

The whole world should not stand aside and let Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon be doubly victimized by the federal government of Brazil and the pervading global silence. Even though COVID-19 has driven countries, citizens and civil society organizations looking inwards for their own survival, a time like this is one of extra vigilance over the most vulnerable. On February 12, 2020, before COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, the Vatican released a historical document titled “Dear Amazon” in which the Pope prodded a seared global conscience over the state of the Amazon rainforest and its custodian Indigenous People. According to EcoWatch, the Pontiff’s plea “in defense of the rainforest is at once scientific, humanistic, political, and spiritual”. As he noted, “If the care of people and the care of ecosystems are inseparable, this becomes especially important in places where the forest is not a resource to be exploited; it is a being, or various beings, with which we have to relate … When indigenous peoples remain on their land, they themselves care for it best, provided they do not let themselves be taken in by the siren song and self-serving proposals of power groups.” There is no doubt that Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon have demonstrated resilience and have heroically resisted being ‘taken in’ under the current existential threat many of them face in Brazil and elsewhere in the region.

Historically, Indigenous Peoples all over the world have been great stewards of the earth and critical partners in conservation. Continuing political and economic pressures remain in the way of their ability to play that role at a time of climate crisis. From Africa to South America and counting, COVID-19 has further complicated the plight of Indigenous Peoples. Instead of them having a special classification as the most vulnerable in a time of public health emergency, it would appear that governments are exploiting Indigenous vulnerability at a time when global solidarity is regrettably fragile.

Nailah Ramsoomair is in her second year of the French Common Law Program at the University of Ottawa. She completed an undergraduate degree from the University of Guelph in Microbiology and French literature. She then pursued a Masters degree that focussed on the impacts of colonisation on women in Algeria. After completing her Masters degree, she worked as a sessional lecturer at the University of Waterloo and also conducted research on the depiction of Canada’s aboriginal peoples in literature. This research fueled her passion in human rights, aboriginal relations and indigenous rights. In Law school now, her work with ABS Canada allows her to continue this research.

Dr. Chidi Oguamanam is the Principal Investigator at ABS Canada. He is a Full Professor affiliated with the Centre for Law, Technology, and Society, the Centre for Environmental Law and Global Sustainability, and the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa.

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