Press Release

IACHR Urges States of Pan-Amazon Region and Gran Chaco to Adopt Urgent Measures to Address Critical Predicament of Indigenous Peoples Resulting from COVID-19 Pandemic

August 17, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed its grave concern over the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the indigenous peoples living in the Pan-Amazon Region and Gran Chaco. It calls on the states in these two regions to adopt and implement public policies to recognize, strengthen, protect, and guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples, and ensure they can exercise their right to participation in political and public life.

The IACHR has been informed continuously of the serious risks that the COVID-19 pandemic poses to the physical and cultural survival of the indigenous peoples of the Pan-Amazon Region and Gran Chaco. It received specific, troubling information on this issue during the online forums that were held on June 12 and July 3, 2020, in which representatives of the indigenous peoples in question and civil society organizations took part. In the Pan-Amazon Region, as of August 4, 2020, some 34,598 indigenous people from around 212 indigenous peoples or nationalities had been infected with the virus, and 1251 indigenous people had died. The IACHR was informed of the loss of lives of male and female leaders, children, adolescents, young people, adults, and older people who had protected the wisdom and ancestral knowledge of their peoples. This situation severely jeopardizes the cultural and spiritual heritage of these groups.

In this regard, the IACHR has been informed that the states of the Pan-Amazon Region and Gran Chaco have continued to grant environmental permits for extractive and infrastructure projects in indigenous territories and their surroundings, often without prior consultation with the indigenous peoples in question. The IACHR deems that in addition to impacting their lands, territories, and natural resources, these projects expose indigenous peoples to contact with workers without appropriate measures having been taken to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Likewise, the IACHR has been informed of the advance of illegal logging and mining activities in ancestral territories, and the presence of armed individuals and organized crime in the area.

In this regard, the IACHR notes that these presences represent an ongoing threat to the survival of indigenous peoples not only because of the acts of violence that may occur but also because of the high possibility of COVID-19 infections. Indeed, the IACHR has learned that contact between outsiders and indigenous peoples have resulted in infections within communities, including in areas near territories where indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation and initial contact live. These circumstances are particularly troubling, given that in recent decades contact with third parties has repeatedly led to the transmission of infectious diseases that decimated these peoples.

Following up on earlier recommendations, the IACHR called on states to refrain from authorizing and implementing extractive, mining, or development projects in or around indigenous territories, given that it is currently impossible to carry out appropriate consultations in accordance with international standards. It also urges states to implement measures to protect indigenous territories and sanction anyone who enters these illegally to carry out illegal mining or logging activities or other illegal activities such as drug trafficking.

According to the information received by the IACHR, the pandemic has exacerbated the existing structural problems affecting indigenous peoples relating to discrimination and lack of access to healthcare and basic services. The IACHR has been informed of cases in which social support measures and other benefits provided in response to the health emergency have not reached indigenous communities or have been insufficient. The reports in question note the lack of medical attention for indigenous peoples in urban areas who have lost their jobs and are unable to return to their communities and argue the need for differentiated policies for indigenous peoples who have migrated or sought refugee status in neighboring countries and have suffered high rates of infection from COVID-19 and other diseases due to poor health conditions.

The IACHR has learned that given this lack of a timely response from states, indigenous peoples have themselves developed strategies to implement awareness-raising campaigns and provide medical attention and humanitarian aid within their communities. Of these strategies, the IACHR wishes to highlight how these groups have articulated their solidarity and support networks with those of other indigenous peoples’ organizations, civil society, international cooperation agencies, and academic bodies. They have also used their ancestral medicinal knowledge to treat the symptoms of COVID-19, which has prevented a greater number of deaths from occurring. The IACHR warns that the health emergency triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic should not prompt the appropriation and commercialization of this knowledge by outsiders and reminds states that they should work with indigenous peoples to adopt measures to recognize and protect their rights to possess, control, protect, and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and intellectual property, according to international standards. They must also facilitate the exchange of these measures and enable any other peoples who require them to access them.

The IACHR has also been informed of indigenous peoples’ initiatives to safeguard their food security and sovereignty in response to the limitations caused by state-mandated lockdown and quarantine measures. Similarly, it was made aware of indigenous communities implementing checkpoints and self-isolation or confinement measures to prevent people who may be carrying COVID-19 from entering their territories. According to the information the IACHR has received, these initiatives have helped control the spread of the pandemic but require greater respect and support from state authorities and other third parties.

The IACHR wishes to endorse the calls from indigenous organizations and peoples for spaces of direct dialogue to be established between them and the governments of their countries and international organizations, including the United Nations, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), to enable them to put forward their own proposals for how the COVID-19 pandemic should be handled in the Pan-Amazon Region and Gran Chaco. Specifically, the IACHR urges states in the region and international organizations to support the strategies and proposals for tackling the pandemic put forward by indigenous peoples and to ground this support in respect for their self-determination, territories, cultures, and other human rights. It also urges states to strive to complement these efforts with effective measures to facilitate access to humanitarian support, healthcare, food, water, COVID-19 testing and containment measures, and the quarantine measures implemented by states during the health emergency.

Likewise, the IACHR notes that to control the spread of the virus in the Pan-Amazon Region, where several states share border crossings, there is a need for cross-border strategies and policies to be agreed on by indigenous peoples and state authorities to address the differentiated impacts that the pandemic is having and those that will follow after it ends. In line with the recommendations issued previously by the IACHR in two reports, Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation and Initial Contact in the Americas and Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Pan-Amazon Region, states in the region should collaborate with indigenous authorities and organizations to implement transnational and bilateral actions to protect indigenous peoples. Any such initiatives should take into account international standards on indigenous peoples’ rights to cultural identity and nondiscrimination, participation in public and political life, self-determination, and free, prior, and informed consent regarding lands, territories, natural resources, and economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights, along with specific standards that are applicable to indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation and initial contact.

Likewise, the IACHR reiterates its recommendations regarding the need for indigenous peoples to participate in the drafting and implementation of public policies regarding medical attention, including the use of telemedicine, and that these should take an intercultural, gender-based approach, contemplate intergenerational solidarity, and include these people’s traditional healing practices. Differentiated policies also need to be agreed on for indigenous people living in urban areas and indigenous migrants and refugees who are outside of their communities and countries of origin.

Finally, the IACHR urges states in the Pan-Amazon Region and Gran Chaco to develop policies based on reliable, up-to-date data collection to ensure those in the region have access to sufficient resources for mitigating the effects of the pandemic and addressing its effects on health, food security, education, unemployment, and poverty. The IACHR stresses that while the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it is vital for states to adopt robust measures to guarantee that these policies are indeed implemented within indigenous territories and ensure that those living there obtain access to medical resources—including telemedicine in more isolated areas—testing, and biosafety equipment. These should be implemented through broad consultation and cooperation with indigenous peoples and in a way that respects their way of life, culture, worldview, and economic livelihood.

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. 200/20