The tragic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on indigenous people in Peru was highlighted on Saturday by a Columban missionary priest, who works for REPAM, a Catholic Church network that promotes the lives and dignity of people living in the Amazon. Fr Peter Hughes, who is based in Lima, reported that the actual death toll from Covid is likely to be double the official figure of 32,000 for Peru’s casualties, and that many uncounted deaths are indigenous people. “We must insist on human and indigenous rights,” he said; “we have legislation but it is not implemented.”
Fr Hughes was speaking at an online meeting of the Peru Support Group on Saturday with the theme, “The Pandemic and its Impact on Indigenous People.” He was part of a panel highlighting the particular vulnerability of indigenous populations, their exclusion from decision-making processes, and their lack of access to public services, including access to health care and food provision. He reported that when Covid arrived in March the first reaction of the government was the opposite to what indigenous people wanted to do, which was to close the frontiers to indigenous lands. Instead, the Peruvian government opened the frontiers of indigenous areas to extractive industries and militarised them to protect mining companies. “This was to the detriment of the people in the Peruvian Amazon,” he said, reporting that people living in small communities in the forests and along the riverbanks were not protected, and many have died over the last six months.
He was proud of the practical role the Catholic Church played last Autumn with the Synod on the Amazon in Rome. “The Catholic Church doesn’t have a good history of listening but we did at the Synod,” he reflected. Around 97,000 people contributed to the gathering, and the Church listened even if the authorities in Amazon countries did not. Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’ “went far beyond the frontiers of the Church to call for protection of our common home,” and for indigenous peoples’ rights and environmental rights go together. Fr Peter reported that Guarani people at Synod said, “Mother Earth is bleeding because of extractive industries, and this must stop.” Since then, as comings and goings by strangers into the Amazon region have increased, Covid infections have rocketed. Despite government inaction to protect indigenous people they have cared for each other, using traditional medicines to alleviate Covid symptoms, and even sending food, such as Plantain, from the rainforest to the nearest cities by canoe. The Catholic Church in the City of Iquitos crowdfunded an oxygen facility to help Covid victims struggling to breathe.
Lizardo Cauper, an indigenous leader, spoke of the implications of being excluded from the state’s health system. “I have lost neighbours and elders in this pandemic, but it has highlighted to the world the plight of indigenous peoples” he said. Lizardo reported that conflicts linked to extractive industries have worsened during the pandemic and there have been reports of killings. “Our rights are denied in Peru and beyond Peru,” he said. Carlos Soria, an environmental lawyer, reported that although the Peruvian constitution protects the right to health, the reality is quite different. “Local health centres in the Amazon often have no doctors and are low on medicines, and some health technicians abandoned their posts, since they had no protection and no clue how to handle the pandemic,” he reported.
Carlos was critical that the Peruvian government was reluctant to isolate indigenous areas and legislation has protected the government and industries. Working through legal processes was also hard when many government offices remained closed and it was challenging to access documentation. “The government is not very interested in supporting indigenous peoples’ rights” and he urged authorities to look into the sustainable lifestyles of indigenous people who “have promoted the concept of a green economy for decades.”
Other Peru Support Group panellists, including Vanessa Baird, co-editor and co-director of New Internationalist, agreed that the Peruvian government has failed its indigenous people and is plundering Amazonian wealth.
But what can we do here in Britain? Participants were encouraged to look at where their money is invested, send out information about the webinar and look out for potential future problems in Peru. For example, industry plans to dredge four major rivers in the Amazon to allow larger boats access to assist extractive industries. Indigenous people don’t want this. “It would be good to have a constitution that protects indigenous people and a Minister for Indigenous People,” suggested a panellist.