Confronted with the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the world is now facing the greatest health, economic and social challenge in the recent times. For communities living in indigenous peoples and community-conserved territories and areas (ICCAs), COVID-19 poses grave health threats since they already experience lack of access to healthcare, essential services, sanitation and other key preventive measures, and have significantly higher rates of communicable and non-communicable diseases.
Moreover, indigenous peoples’ traditional lifestyles are a source of their resiliency, yet, they entail large gatherings --- posing threats at this time in preventing the virus spread. As lockdowns continue in many countries, they are confronted with significant challenges in access to food, exacerbating food insecurity and chronic poverty already faced by many.
Understanding Indigenous Peoples’ needs during the pandemic
The SGP, a key partner and the delivery mechanism for the Global Support Initiative to ICCAs (ICCA-GSI), performed impact assessments in 125 countries, including the 26 countries where ICCA-GSI projects are implemented. The ICCA-GSI's central goal is to support and overall effectiveness of ICCAs for biodiversity conservation through direct support in the self-strengthening of indigenous peoples. Initiatives include community-based action and legal support for ecosystem protection, sustainable livelihoods, poverty reduction and protection of traditional knowledge. The ICCA-GSI is a multi-partnership initiative funded by the Government of Germany, through its Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).
In all countries, virtual meetings and phone surveys were undertaken to understand the current situations and needs of indigenous peoples due to the pandemic. These provided a platform to (i) listen to each NGO, CBO and indigenous organization as they share perceptions, emotions of fear and anxiety, and needs, (ii) define new ways to promote solidarity with the communities, (iii) rediscover indigenous wisdom, (iv) respect and promote their decisions amidst the pandemic, and (v) develop new partnerships and/or strengthen existing ones.
Hygiene products and closed borders as first protection measures
As a response to the urgent requests of indigenous communities for personal protective equipment (PPE) and hygienic and sanitation products to prevent infections, the ICCA-GSI projects distributed masks, sanitizers, soaps and disinfecting/cleaning products to the project sites. Many indigenous communities have also closed their borders to help prevent the spread of the virus, as well as enforcing restrictions on mobility and group gatherings inside their territories. These, however, have negatively affected food supply and their livelihoods, and created awareness gaps on the pandemic amongst the indigenous communities.
Below are some examples of ICCA-GSI’s on-going support across regions from Belize, Ecuador, Malaysia and Senegal.
Food security and sustainable livelihoods
In Malaysia, some indigenous communities had an abundance of produce supplies because they had no buyers due to the shutdowns. Yet, other communities faced notable food shortages. As such, the SGP linked their project partners (i.e. NGOs, CBOs, indigenous organizations) so that they could purchase produce from ‘abundant supply’ communities and distribute them to communities facing food insecurity.
In Belize and Senegal, project budgets initially earmarked for ‘large gathering’ activities, such as field training sessions, meetings and workshops, were reallocated to activities that bolster food security and enhance resilience.
Despite the low number of COVID-19 cases (a total of 18 cases and 2 deaths) in Belize, the concurrence of shutdowns, rainy season (June 1) and devasting wildfires required emergency support in rural and remote indigenous communities in the central, north and southern regions. Food packages containing flour, rice, beans, milk and other essential daily food items were distributed to provide immediate access to food. Furthermore, to generate livelihood options and mitigate biodiversity losses, budget reallocations were prioritized for distributing seeds, establishing indigenous seed banks, and agroforestry and agroecological activities.
Similarly, in Senegal, food and agricultural supplies (seeds and equipment) were distributed to several ICCAs to address immediate food needs, guarantee subsistence agriculture and provide income-generating alternatives. This was particularly crucial for the tourism- and agricultural-dependent Ethiolo villagers of the Ané Mountain ICCA (South-East Senegal), who face uncertainties due to the pandemic-driven economic devastation and the suspension of micro-credit grants from Fonds Appui à l’Environnement et au Développement (FAED) that support income-generating activities. By the same token, the project also coordinated food distribution systems between village leaders and the government, especially in the Oulolo ICCA located in the Sédhiou region (South-West Senegal), where government food aid does not reach all village members.
In Ecuador, a food autonomy plan ‘strengthening food sovereignty’ was developed in the Waorani territories, based on community capacities and food traditions (i.e. biocultural groves and diversified orchards); and in the Kichwa Native Village of Sarayaku, the communities are rediscovering natural medicines to strengthen the respiratory and immune system.
Narrowing awareness gaps on COVID-19
Due to indigenous peoples’ isolation, the guidelines and preventive measures established at national and/or regional levels do not reach many of them. As such, awareness-raising campaigns were held through culturally relevant channels and COVID-19 communication materials were developed in local language.
In Ecuador, three indigenous groups in the Amazonian region epitomized these initiatives. In the Waorani territories, a prevention guide in wao tededo (Waorani language) was developed and disseminated to 54 communities. These included a series of protocols, community trainings, videos and radio programs on the impacts of COVID-19, with extra focus on the Pikenane (elderly) who are more vulnerable, and the importance of quarantining. In Shuar Arutam Village, guidelines were distributed through the community media “The Voice of the Live Waterfalls” in the Shuar Chicham local dialect; and in the Kichwa Native Village of Sarayaku, health protocols and evacuation logistics for health emergencies was shared in Spanish and kichwa via online meetings and distribution of prevention cards.
Coordination of efforts between external organizations and indigenous communities amidst the pandemic
The ICCA-GSI projects also enabled the coordination of efforts between the ICCA communities and local government officials, CSOs, private sector and national/regional indigenous organizations in securing banned entry/exit points and logistics of food transport. Together, they identified vulnerable entry/exit points, organized management committees in strategic points and ensured sufficient food availability to refrain community members from leaving their territories. Governing councils also requested food suppliers to bring deliveries closer to the territories, and relevant governing council members or village leaders received and distributed them to each family.
These efforts were supplemented according to the various needs in each ICCA. For example, the Waorani territories are surrounded by various entities, including oil companies who are still operating amidst the pandemic. Here, village leaders worked with the companies to limit the entries of private sector personnel to essential workers.
Article by: Anna Lisa Jose