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Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Are “At Serious Risk” from COVID-19, Warn UN Human Rights and IACHR

June 4, 2020

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SANTIAGO/LA PAZ/BOGOTÁ/WASHINGTON DC (June 4, 2020) — COVID-19 is posing one of the greatest ever threats to the ways of life of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, the UN Human Rights Offices for South America, Colombia, and its Mission in Bolivia warned today, together with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

In a statement issued just before World Environment Day, the organizations urged states with sovereignty over the Amazon region to protect the survival and rights of the indigenous peoples living in the Amazon basin, particularly those who are living in voluntary isolation or at the first contact stage.

The offices of UN Human Rights and the IACHR expressed alarm over infections and deaths from COVID-19 among indigenous peoples of the Amazon and over the lack of access to reliable health-related information and the absence of hospital infrastructure and access to healthcare services that are appropriate to their needs during the crisis.

They also expressed specific concerns over the situation of indigenous women and the continuation of economic, extractive, and development-related activities in the area that make it hard for communities to distance or isolate themselves.

The UN Human Rights offices and the IACHR also called for these indigenous peoples of South America to be provided with culturally appropriate socioeconomic support as well as support for their self-care measures by improving the role of their authorities in any decisions that are made and monitoring the effectiveness of measures seeking to protect their rights.

The declaration is signed by the UN Human Rights Representative in South America, Jan Jařab; the UN Human Rights Representative in Colombia, Alberto Brunori; the Coordinator of the UN Human Rights Mission in Bolivia, Alán García Campos; and the Executive Secretary of the IACHR, Paulo Abrão.

- Read the full statement:

Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Need Urgent Protection from COVID-19

“On the eve of World Environment Day, UN Human Rights and the IACHR* warn that COVID-19 is seriously jeopardizing the survival and rights of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, who hold the most profound knowledge of one of the richest ecosystems on earth in terms of both its biodiversity and culture.

The Amazon is inhabited by more than 420 indigenous peoples, at least 60 of whom live in voluntary isolation, and is one of the most naturally and culturally diverse regions in the world. COVID-19 has spread exponentially through the area and is affecting the peoples living there.

The states of the Amazon region must respond to the circumstances by increasing measures to protect indigenous peoples from catching COVID-19 and from other impacts the pandemic may have on their rights.

At a time when national health systems are facing serious difficulties in responding effectively to the pandemic, COVID-19 has drawn attention to the historic absence or limited presence of the state in many territories and the shortfalls in its capacity to meet these peoples’ needs while also taking into consideration their ancestral knowledge, healing practices, and traditional medicines from an intercultural perspective.

The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of ensuring that indigenous peoples can exercise self-government and self-determination. It is therefore essential for states to ensure that indigenous peoples of the Amazon participate in the design and implementation of public policies through their representatives, leaders, and traditional authorities to address the high risk of physical and cultural extinction that they are currently facing.

Consequently, we call on states to respect the self-isolation measures adopted by indigenous peoples—including both long-standing measures and those introduced in response to the pandemic, such as cordons sanitaires—and to provide with personal protective equipment using safe means. It is also essential that states share accurate, culturally appropriate information with indigenous peoples in their own languages or dialects and do so in a timely fashion.

We at UN Human Rights and the IACHR welcome state initiatives that contemplate socioeconomic support and strengthen indigenous peoples’ food autonomy and self-care measures in response to the pandemic, given that their subsistence is often dependent on informal trade or activities such as ecotourism, which have been affected by lockdown and other physical distancing measures.

Our organizations are both concerned that these measures are insufficient or inadequate: sometimes these support measures are inaccessible, do not reach territories in a timely fashion, or the food sent is inappropriate to communities’ ways of life, worldviews, or culture. The forms of distribution do not always comply with health standards, causing crowding that may contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

We also call on authorities to promote the rights of indigenous women, who are at risk of being disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic due to their predominant role in the informal economy and as caregivers within the home. Efforts must be made to ensure that indigenous women benefit equally from social protection measures; to prevent and respond to the violence that has escalated as a result of confinement measures; and to ensure that the overburdening of health systems does not result in an alarming increase in maternal mortality rates among indigenous women and adolescents, nor does it entail additional difficulties in accessing sexual and reproductive health services.

During the crisis, we have received alarming information that some companies (in the extractive and forestry industries and other sectors) have shown disregard for indigenous people’ right to prior, free, and informed consultation and have not ceased their activities, including in areas where restrictions on movement and other extraordinary measures have been decreed, which is exposing these peoples to a significant risk of contagion. Indigenous peoples in the Amazon are also exposed to armed individuals with ties to organized crime and drug trafficking. For all of these reasons, we call on states to refrain from promoting legislative initiatives and/or authorizing extractive, mining, or development projects in or around indigenous territories during the COVID-19 pandemic, given that it is currently impossible for processes of prior, free, and informed consultation to be implemented in accordance with the applicable international standards.

The design, implementation, and evaluation of damage mitigation and recovery measures, which are the next stage in this process, should evaluate indigenous peoples’ development priorities, placing particular emphasis on older indigenous people, people with disabilities, women, children, adolescents, people with different sexual orientations or gender identities, people with health problems, and indigenous human rights defenders. States need to guarantee that processes of prior, free, informed, culturally appropriate consultation with indigenous peoples and communities are in place regarding any economic recovery policies that may affect their rights and legitimate interests, especially when it comes to opening up indigenous territories to extractive industry megaprojects or similar initiatives.

Finally, UN Human Rights and the IACHR encouraged the states of the Amazon region to step up South–South cooperation efforts to strengthen measures to protect indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation and first contact during the COVID-19 pandemic, to protect their ways of life, subsistence, and human rights.


Joint statement from Jan Jařab, UN Human Rights Representative for South America; Alberto Brunori, UN Human Rights Representative for Colombia; Alán García Campos, Coordinator of the UN Human Rights Mission in Bolivia, and Paulo Abrão, Executive Secretary of the IACHR.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 126/20