Deep in the Colombian Andes, José Obeymar Tenorio is on sentry duty.
Armed with a simple wooden staff, he belongs to Colombia’s Indigenous Guard, a two thousand strong force whose job is to protect the Nasa reservation in the country’s southwestern Cauca region (see picture below).
In one of Colombia’s most violent places, these volunteers are normally the frontline of defence against drug traffickers and insurgents, but now they face the unprecedented challenge of thwarting a global pandemic.
The Indigenous Guard patrols 24 hours a day at hundreds of checkpoints throughout Cauca. The movement of people is restricted and only deliveries of essentials are allowed to pass.
“It’s our job to keep this virus out,” says Mr Obeymar. “This is about our survival.”
Across Latin America, indigenous settlements are isolating themselves from the outside world, concerned the coronavirus poses a serious threat to their existence. In Argentina, members of the Mapuche tribe have set up roadblocks and in Brazil, the Xingu peoples are refusing entry to anyone other than medics. Similar measures have been reported in Guatemala, Chile, Mexico and Nicaragua.
Latin America is home to 42 million indigenous people, according to the World Bank. The extraction industries and deforestation have threatened these communities for many years, but the global pandemic presents potentially disastrous consequences.
The United Nations says indigenous groups are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases. High levels of poverty and malnutrition can severely weaken the immune system. It was the first wave of European colonization in the eighteenth century that introduced diseases like smallpox to Latin America, resulting in millions of deaths among the continent’s native populations.
“History tells us we are vulnerable,” said Jhoe (correct spelling) Sauca from the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca in Colombia. “And we have to save ourselves, nobody else will help us.”
In Peru, indigenous groups submitted a formal complaint to the UN in late April, saying the government had left them to fend for themselves against the coronavirus, risking “ethnocide by inaction.” And in neighbouring Ecuador, representatives of The Siekopai nation of just 744 people said they feared being wiped out entirely after confirming 15 cases and two deaths within their community.
In the Amazon basin, 180 of the 600 indigenous tribes have reported infections and at least 30 deaths, according to charities working in the rainforest. This week the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Vaupés, known as the jewel of the Colombian Amazon, and home to 255 indigenous communities.
“This is the biggest threat we have faced for centuries,” said Simón Valencia, leader of the department’s ancestral authorities. “We’re taking urgent action to isolate our people and shield our elders in particular.”
Indigenous history is often passed down the generations through storytelling. Traditions and rituals are taught by those who have lived longest.
“This could be the end for us,” said Mr Valencia. “If we lose our elders, we lose our culture. Even if we survive, our way of life may not.”
Indigenous groups from the nine countries of the Amazon basin are calling for donations to help protect the three million people, who live under the canopy of the rainforest. The Amazon Emergency Fund is being sponsored by the Rainforest Foundation US. Its chief executive, Suzanne Pelletier, told the Telegraph the aim was to raise three million dollars in two weeks.
“Rainforests are critical to combating the climate crisis and science shows that forests that are owned and managed by Indigenous peoples are healthier,” she said. “This is why supporting and protecting the health of Indigenous peoples is absolutely vital to all the inhabitants of the planet.”