Ecuador’s Amazon indigenous communities face Covid-19 and other threats to their way of life
By Mitch Anderson
Ten days after showing his first symptoms, Dannes Piaguaje struggled to breathe as he leaned over a traditional steam remedy in his leaf-thatch jungle home in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The jungle concoction, known as Pi’ko Mëoñe, looks like black tea and is boiling hot — so hot the steam burns the skin on Piaguaje’s face. It was prepared by his older brother, Armando, using ingredients from the surrounding forest: wild garlic leaves, assorted plants like Amazonian stinging nettle, Santa Maria and Ayahuasca, and several wild vines, including Cat’s claw. Piaguaje inhaled the mixture’s pungent vapors for 15 minutes before consuming a bitter medicine made from the bark of the Hacha Caspi tree, a member of the quinine family.
The traditional remedy was not Piaguaje’s first choice of treatment. The first member of his Secoya village of Waiya to fall ill with Covid-19, he spent several frantic days in Tarapoa, the nearest city, seeking an “official” diagnosis of the strange sickness that gripped him in feverish, bone-aching waves. The doctors in Tarapoa offered little insight or help, and eventually sent him home with an anti-bacterial commonly used to treat bronchitis and pneumonia. It was only then that the 35-year-old father of two turned to his people’s age-old traditions, which he says helped his breathing and facilitated his recovery. “The jungle healed me more than the doctors could,” says Piaguaje.
Any satisfaction, however, soon gave way to worry. Following his return to the village, the disease began spreading and quickly infected every member of his extended family. In late April, his grandfather died of the disease, the second elder of the Secoya nationality to succumb.
In mid-March, his and neighboring Secoya communities confronted two separate crises that threatened their food sovereignty at the worst possible moment. Days after Ecuador declared a state of emergency on March 15, the Secoya people’s principal fishing river, the Shushufindi, was poisoned by a massive pesticide runoff from nearby African palm plantations, decimating local fish stocks. Three weeks later, a devastating rupture of the country’s biggest oil pipelines spilled crude oil into the Napo river, a tributary of the Amazon, leaving dozens of indigenous villages and tens of thousands of peoples without access to clean water and traditional fishing resources, including the Secoya village of Painkenape. (Only weeks before the spill, Ecuador’s oil minister Rene Ortiz described the pandemic as an “opportunity” to ramp up oil production.)
This triple-crisis provides a window into the unique vulnerabilities of indigenous communities across the Amazon. In villages like Piaguaje’s, the pandemic has arrived on top of the slow-motion catastrophe of oil activity that is contaminating local sources of food and water. Only now, the long supply trips to frontier towns that this contamination has made necessary threaten to bring the virus back into the forest. Illegal loggers and poachers present another possible vector.
The regional governments’ have largely abandoned indigenous populations to their fate, a decision with painful historical echoes of the sixteenth-century arrival of smallpox and other diseases that decimated once-thriving indigenous populations. In the rainforest regions of Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, overwhelmed and understaffed public health offices focus what resources they have on larger urban areas like Manaus and Iquitos, where the bodies have piled up in the streets.
The first indigenous fatalities in Ecuador occurred in mid-April, a month after the government declared a national state of emergency, and following the oil spill on the Coca and Napo Rivers. Under pressure from my organization, a government “health brigade” was sent to the village where the first death occurred, called Bellavista. It took 15 days for the community test results to come back. By then, the virus had spread to potentially dozens of families. In many villages, there were either no tests provided, or the results were lost in a backlog of tens of thousands of samples, according to sources within the Health Ministry.
In response, Secoya families took matters into their own hands, turning to medicinal plants and going deeper into the forest to both escape disease and find food and clean water. A number of Secoya have fled by canoe to their ancestral heartland of Lagartococha, 100 miles downstream on the Aguarico River near the Peruvian border.
“Our only refuge from this disease is our traditional medicine and our territory. The government has nothing to offer us — not tests, not medicine, not even resources,” says Secoya President, Justino Piaguaje. “Many of our families have fled to our sacred lands in Lagartococha following in the footsteps of our ancestors. There, our elders will be safe from the contagion.”
Throughout April, high-level officials in the Ecuadorian Health Ministry repeatedly told Amazon Frontlines they did not have tests for the Amazon region. The limited number of tests available nationally, they said, were being reserved for Guayaquil and other crowded urban areas. Though the crisis in these places is serious, the abandonment of the Amazon region further demonstrates the government’s cruel and all-too evident lack of concern for the people living in the region that produces all of Ecuador’s oil wealth and accounts for most of its export income.
“The government only shows up in our territories when it wants our oil resources but when our people are facing a health crisis they are nowhere to be found,” says Justino Piaguaje, the Secoya President. “Since the first Europeans came here, we have been victims of this type of disease. We will not let history repeat itself. We are a small indigenous nation, but we have our territory and our medicine, and we are strong.”
Centuries ago, the Secoya people of this region numbered in the tens of thousands. Early colonial maps and documents refer to them as the “encabellados” (“long hairs”), a thriving and sophisticated agricultural people who lived along the big rivers. Today, there are roughly 700 Secoya remaining in Ecuador. Like their neighbors, the Siona and Cofan, they have suffered a long and brutal history of disease, forced settlement, and enslavement by rubber tappers. Over the last half-century, their once-vast territory has been reduced to just 25,000 hectares, surrounded on all sides by oil fields, African palm plantations, and colonist settlements. Covid-19 presents an existential threat to their physical and cultural survival.
Despite dozens of people showing symptoms of Covid-19, Secoya people spent nearly a month in an infuriating battle to get the government’s attention. Without tests, they were left to wonder: Is this the seasonal flu, or the novel coronavirus? Despite the telltale symptoms of bone aches, high fever, and dry-cough, the government’s doctors repeatedly misdiagnosed, equivocated, and gave false signals about what was happening. For weeks, they maintained that these symptoms signaled ailments such as tonsillitis, thus hindering the communities’ ability to self-organize and prevent the spread of the virus.
“The doctors were staring the coronavirus right in the face for weeks, and they kept saying to the Secoya, ‘Don’t worry, this isn’t Covid-19, these aren’t the symptoms,’” said Luke Weiss, Amazon Frontlines’ Culture and Conversation Coordinator, who has lived with the Secoya people for over two decades.
The oil industry, meanwhile, arguably the real power in the region, has also proven to be uninterested in the health of the local population. According to internal sources at the Ministry of Health, the Chinese oil company Andes Petroleum (who operates oil fields that criss-cross the Secoya people’s territory) rejected the Health Ministry’s request for donations of tests. The state oil company Petroamazonas never even responded to the Ministry’s request. Both companies continue to operate during the pandemic, reserving test kits for their employees. This has not prevented multiple known instances of oil company workers arriving with Covid-19 from other cities into the Amazon. The most common routes are oil roads that cut directly through indigenous territories.
Regardless of what happens for the duration of the pandemic, the loss to the imperiled cultures of the region has already been great. Dannes Payaguaje’s grandfather was a treasure chest of forest knowledge handed down over the centuries. The very same forest knowledge, for instance, that would have known that Hacha Caspi, which contains quinine, might provide effective relief for the symptoms of this novel disease. “The sickness crept into my grandpa, and took him away from us into the sky,” said Dannes. “What will happen if this sickness continues to spread? Our elders are the most vulnerable.”
In the days before his grandfather died, Dannes’ mother Ines fed her father banana gruel with a spoon and spoke to him in whispers. The old man had been bed-ridden for several years, and she was experienced in caring for him. But her emotion was palpable on the morning, shortly before his death, when she whispered into his ear, “This sickness I have is going to be what takes you away. “I’m going to be the one that causes your death.”
Mitch Anderson is the founder and Executive Director of Amazon Frontlines, a nonprofit organization based in the Upper Amazon, which defends indigenous peoples’ rights to land, life, and cultural survival.
Credit: Mongabay News