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Indigenous knowledge – and resilience – in a COVID-19 world

It is increasingly clear that human health and our relationship with nature are inescapably intertwined. This holds true across many dimensions of health, including the potential for the transmission of disease – just as we are seeing with the current COVID-19 pandemic. While the exact origins of COVID-19 have not yet been confirmed, the link between environmental damage and pandemics is well known. Recently, it has been highlighted by leading research organizations and even the UN Secretary-General.

But there is yet another group of experts who have been worrying about the threat of a pandemic even before COVID-19: indigenous peoples. Thanks to their traditional knowledge and their relationship with the natural world, they have long known that the degradation of the environment has the potential to unleash disease.

As we fight the spread of the pandemic, it is more important than ever to safeguard these peoples and their knowledge.

Indigenous peoples’ unique role

Indigenous peoples across the world play a unique and valuable role in sustainably managing a significant share of the world’s lands and ecosystems. Their territories are home to 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity – and indeed, safeguarding nature is a fundamental part of their cultures.

It is therefore not surprising that environmental outcomes have been shown to be far better in territories collectively controlled by indigenous peoples. For example, in the Brazilian Amazon, the rate of deforestation in indigenous peoples’ territories is less than 10 per cent of the rates throughout the rest of the region.

Indigenous peoples can teach us much about how to rebalance our relationship with nature and reduce the risk of future pandemics. But their communities already face a host of challenges, and the unfortunate present reality is that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are worsening these challenges further still.

In some places, the pandemic is even contributing to violations of indigenous peoples’ rights to land and territories, as well as increasing local conflicts.

“Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, indigenous peoples are facing threats [including] encroachment of their traditional territories during lockdown [and] security forces misusing lockdown rules to oppress and crackdown indigenous rights defenders,” says Mai Thin Yu Mon, Program Director for the Indigenous Peoples Development Program of the Chin Human Rights Organization. “All these human rights violations have made indigenous peoples more vulnerable during the pandemic.”

Resilience in challenging times

At the same time, indigenous peoples have been using their traditional knowledge and practices to find solutions to the challenges the pandemic brings them. As they have done for centuries, their communities continue to adapt to change while maintaining their cultures and traditions.

In Brazil, for example, the Juruna people had been providing culturally appropriate school meals for local children – and now that schools are closed, they are delivering food for free to vulnerable members of their community. In Colombia, the Calicanto Indigenous Association and the Inga community are mitigating the restrictions on movement by organizing the distribution of their harvests based on families’ exact locations.

These examples, as well as other traditional practices of solidarity  – including ways of organizing, such as mingas (also known as faenas), ayni and manovuelta – display the reciprocity and mutualism with which these peoples safeguard the food security of their community members. These traditions, practiced widely amongst many different indigenous peoples’ communities, are key to these communities’ resilience and ability to maintain their traditional cultures while adapting to the restrictions brought about by the pandemic.

Indigenous peoples’ communities are also strengthening their efforts to protect their livelihoods and traditional ways of life in the face of the pandemic. The Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, for example, has been leading a platform called the “Response and Communication Network on COVID-19” that shares information and recommendations in dealing with the crisis. Similarly, in Peru, indigenous peoples’ organizations have published guidelines to assist native communities in managing the COVID-19 health crisis.

Working with indigenous peoples in a post-COVID world

The COVID-19 pandemic shows us that we need to rethink the way we interact with nature, as well as the ways we produce and consume food: our unsustainable agricultural practices, such as encroaching on forests and other sources of biodiversity, are precisely what has brought us into closer contact with the virus that causes COVID-19.

Indigenous peoples have long warned of the consequences of exactly these kinds of practices. And IFAD has long recognized them as key partners in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and moving towards a more resilient future.

In this time of crisis, their communities need our help to protect them from the effects of the pandemic – both the direct health impacts and the knock-on socio-economic impacts.

As we work together to craft a global response to COVID-19, it will be crucial to support these communities’ initiatives to respond to the crisis and preserve their traditions. They deserve our support – and we need indigenous peoples and their unique knowledge to build a better, brighter post–COVID-19 world.