In early April of 2021 – a full year after the covid pandemic struck South America, collapsing western health systems, and sweeping through even the most remote Indigenous communities of the Amazon – our teams held a series of meetings at our joint organizing center in Ecuador’s northern Amazon to reflect on key learnings and experiences over the past year, and to discuss how to most effectively, and safely, protect Indigenous territories and cultures from the deepening, inter-linked crisis that we are facing: climate chaos, biodiversity loss, intensified resource-extraction, and an imminent, variant-spiked second-wave of Covid arriving daily by river, road, and plane to frontier towns across the upper Amazon

Here is a short video that captures the spirit of that meeting, shot by two young Secoya filmmakers, who also made a stunning short for the New Yorker last year, entitled: Fighting Covid in the Amazon with Ancestral Wisdom.

The reality for Indigenous communities in the Amazon, not unlike elsewhere in the world, is that the pandemic has sharpened inequalities, exposed systemic racism, and intensified extractive pressures over their territories and cultures.  Across the region, governments have largely abandoned Indigenous peoples to contend with Covid-19 on their own – access to public health information, testing and medical supplies have been limited at best, and the prospect of vaccinations for Indigenous communities is a long way off.  In Ecuador, massive oil spills, ramped-up mining, and an illegal logging boom have compounded the dire situation.  In Colombia, armed conflict over the illicit coca trade is heightening risks to Indigenous land defenders.  And in Brazil, the Bolsonaro government’s chilling contempt for nature and the rights of Indigenous people is fueling deforestation and escalating covid mortality rates.

Waorani leaders prepare for a virtual press conference to report on the COVID-19 emergency in their territory, Shell, Pastaza, Ecuadorian Amazon

Community-Organizing on the Frontlines

But there is another, less-storied, reality, as well.  Despite the manifold threats – the contaminated water, the marginalization, the arson fires –  Indigenous peoples across the Amazon continue to organize and innovate strategies for their own physical and cultural survival, and for the protection of nearly half the primary forest remaining in the Amazon.

Here are just a few examples:  Besieged by an unrelenting wave of Covid-19 last year, the Secoya people created an ancestral remedy – a concoction of roots, barks, flowers, and leaves from their ancestral land – that was deployed to fortify immune systems and treat Covid-19 symptoms across Indigenous communities in the Amazon and the Andes.  (Photo)  The Waorani people challenged the Ecuadorian government’s racism and dire mismanagement of their Covid response, and set a legal and political precedent on how governments should prioritize attention to Indigenous peoples during the pandemic.  Ceibo Alliance leveraged deep, trust-based community relationships and years of experience managing complex rainforest logistics to deploy resources and medical supplies, build communications infrastructure, and manage public health emergencies across millions of acres of indigenous territory in Ecuador, Colombia and Peru.  And across the Amazon, Indigenous leaders, communities and institutions have been creating land-patrols and Indigenous guardias to monitor increased extractive threats and  restrict access to their territories.

While we work to support Indigenous peoples in confronting a new wave of hostile economic recovery measures and intensifying extractive threats across the region, we are moved and inspired by the fact that the frontline communities that proved most resilient in the face of Covid-19 were also those least impacted by the extractive economy. While the geographical distance for communities living in roadless primary forests posed difficulties for their access to testing and western medical supplies, these communities had robust access to intact hunting and fishing resources and traditional plant medicines throughout the pandemic and ultimately saw lower mortality rates and less covid-related trauma than Indigenous communities living in fragmented territories impacted by the extractive industry.

Like many Indigenous nations across the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Waorani people turned to their knowledge of medicinal plants and the forest to fight COVID-19

At Amazon Frontlines and the Ceibo Alliance we are working towards transformative and systemic change, and so we are inspired immensely by some of the profound learnings and reflections that Indigenous peoples have shared with us over the course of the pandemic. At a time of global emergency, as western governments and health institutions faltered, Indigenous peoples found the key to survival in the knowledge of their own elders, in the water, food and medicines that their rainforest territory provides, and in the wisdom of nature herself.

As we brace for a second, and possibly more intense wave of Covid-19 here in the Upper Amazon, we will be working closely with Indigenous leaders, communities and organizations to leverage legal strategies, new technologies and communications campaigns to defend their territories against intensifying extractive threats. We will also be investing in a set of strategies – forged with Indigenous leaders in the midst of the pandemic – to strengthen Indigenous culture and resilience, including the launch of food sovereignty initiatives, a women’s leadership & entrepreneurial school, and a youth storytelling laboratory.

In order to stay safe while we continue to build out these ambitious initiatives, we have produced an internal protocols document that we are using to guide our teams’ decision-making through the unpredictable and uncertain terrain of covid outbreaks. We include the document publicly here in case it is helpful for other frontline organizations seeking a flexible approach to navigating risk in times of crisis.

Indigenous peoples on the frontlines need resources to scale their fight to protect their territories and way of life, and to stay safe as we brace for a second wave of COVID-19 in the Upper Amazon. Alongside Ceibo Alliance we have launched the Frontlines Challenge to mobilize resources directly to Indigenous frontlines action to defend the Amazon. Please consider making a gift to support this urgent work in a critical moment, or become a monthly sustainer to help us keep up the fight for the long term.