Colombia’s indigenous peoples fend off COVID-19 using time-tested traditions

Fotografía cedida este jueves, por el Gobierno Mayor de los Pueblos Inga y Kamentsá, que muestra a miembros de la guardia indígena del Valle de Sibundoy mientras restringen el paso de personas ajenas al complejo multiétnico, y utilizan plantas medicinales, en cercanías al municipio de Santiago, Putumayo (Colombia). EFE/Gobierno Mayor de los Pueblos Inga y Kamentsá

Bogotá (EFE).- In the heart of the Colombian Amazon and barricaded to restrict entry to their reservations, the country’s many indigenous peoples are seeking refuge to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and drawing on ancestral knowledge to confront the pandemic.

Colombia’s indigenous communities, representing 4.4% of the population (1,905,617 inhabitants), have established a national prevention strategy that includes, among many measures, the blocking of roads to their territories, allowing only entry of vehicles that transport food and essential necessities for subsistence. “The prevention and containment strategy is divided into three specific actions: pedagogy to understand the pandemic, territorial control through the indigenous guards, and mobilization of knowledge by experts in indigenous medicine,” remarks Ángel Jacanamejoy, secretary-general of the Traditional Indigenous Authorities in Colombia.

The indigenous guard, an organization in defense of rights, territory and autonomy of ethnic communities is organized from La Guajira in the north of the country to the Amazon and Orinoco basins to prevent the entry of people outside their population, such as tourists, visitors to private institutions, delegates of NGO or international cooperators.

The first to do so were the communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, home to the Arhuaco, Kogi, Wiwa and Kakuamo. These tribes petitioned the government to prohibit entry of tourists to the Tayrona National Park, one of the great attractions of Colombia.

These measures have spread throughout almost the entire country and towns gradually have closed borders, but not without warning the government of a need for essential services, such as potable water to guarantee hygiene against the contagion.

Indigenous communities are among the most vulnerable with COVID-19 according to a 2016 report by the Ministry of Health, as acute respiratory infections are the third leading cause of death in these populations. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), more than half of the country’s indigenous peoples live below the poverty line, and more than 40% in extreme poverty, making it difficult to access basic health services.

Facing a dire shortage of qualified doctors in indigenous territories, the Colombian Indigenous Organization (ONIC) has articulated a contingency plan to provide health personnel, traditional doctors and the indigenous guard to vulnerable communities. The strategy also aims to strengthen the sharing of traditional medicines through their plants, uses and customs.

As the pandemic infects more than 1 million around the world, indigenous peoples in Colombia are promoting their ancestral knowledge with medicines and rituals that connect with nature to scare away evil spirits. Drinks made from plants such as incense, rue, rosemary and chamomile, are attributed to having sacred properties. “All this is part of a great spiritual strengthening as these natural elements have allowed us historically to be strong physically and emotionally,” explains Jacanamejoy.

For the Nukak of the Guaviare department, one way they are dealing with the arrival of the pandemic is to self-isolate in their ecological reserves, the majority of which are located in remote mountain ranges. This solution, however, has not mitigated other threats, as some reserves are under the control of illegal armed groups, while others have been ravaged in recent weeks by forest fires.

Hostilities against indigenous communities have not abated in Colombia with the mandatory 19-day quarantine. Despite orders for residents in the towns of northern Cauca to remain inside their homes, “communities are hearing bursts of gunfire due to clashes between the National Army and insurgency groups,” claims ONIC’s senior adviser, Luis Fernando Arias. “This situation puts the Indigenous Guard at serious risk, especially those in charge of controlling access to indigenous reserves,” he claims. “The genocide against indigenous peoples has become our worst pandemic in recent years.”

By Klarem Valoyes.





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