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Impacts of the coronavirus on indigenous groups in the Amazon

Torsten Krause together with a hunter in the Amazon. Photo: Malin Palm.

Impacts of the coronavirus on indigenous groups in the Amazon

Torsten Krause has been researching hunting, forest fauna and wild meat consumption, mainly in the Amazon, for the past three years. He is currently in lock-down in Colombia, where his fieldwork was cut short due to the outburst of Covid-19. In this interview, published the 14th of April, he reflects on the link between humanity's destructive interaction with the environment, and the emergence of new and potentially very dangerous diseases.

Watch: Video of Torsten Krause outlining how COVID-19 affects indigenous groups in the Colombian Amazon and why we need to talk about sustainable hunting and our consumption of wild animals.

How do you think communities in the Amazonas will cope with the coronavirus pandemic?

For indigenous communities the current pandemic might be very severe, since they are very vulnerable and often live very far away from hospitals and access to healthcare. When the Spanish arrived, the flu and other diseases wiped out entire communities and decimated indigenous peoples across South America. The big worry is that this might happen again, although indigenous people have also developed some resistance to the flu and are no longer as defenseless (in their immune system) as before, the new coronavirus might still be a disaster in terms of life and health for these communities. There are regions in Colombia, foremost on the Pacific coast and the Amazon region without a single intensive care unit bed. Keeping the virus away from these vulnerable communities is essential.

One reason my field research travel got cancelled was due to the fact that indigenous communities were urged by the government to close access to their territories for any outsiders (Colombian and foreigners) in order to prevent their people from potential infections. I think this is the only sensible approach they can take. In their communities (particularly in the Amazon region) people are pretty safe as long as none brings the virus into these places. 

What are your reflections on doing research in times of corona, and on sustainability issues?

I have been researching hunting, forest fauna and wild meat consumption, particularly in the Amazon, for the past 3 years. Previously I have also carried out research on hunting in Nigeria’s rainforests. People in tropical forest areas consume a wide variety of wild animals as food and sometimes also as a means to obtain income. Hunting of wild animals is in itself, if properly controlled and managed, not as bad as some radical conservationists say. It’s important for local diets and, in particular for indigenous people, a traditional activity deeply connected to their cosmovision. However, with population growth and increasing demand for wild meat in urban areas, hunting is no longer sustainable and decimates the population of wild animals.

Hunting, habitat loss and the destruction of tropical forests brings people very close to the reservoirs and hosts of a large range of viruses and other pathogens. Just to name a few well known ones – Ebola and HIV are viruses that have been linked to wild animals (monkeys and bats), which then jumped to people through the interaction and consumption of these. The same chain of first infection was established for the previous Corona viruses (SARS and MERS) and also for the current one (Covid-19). Understanding hunter-wildlife interactions and wild meat consumption is also of global public health importance as the current coronavirus pandemic, which has been linked to the consumption of wild animals shows (Ji et al. 2020, Zhou et al. 2020). More than 60% of human pathogens are zoonosis – i.e. they come from animals. These can be wild animals or domesticated ones (chickens, pigs, etc.). There is a lot we still do not know and at any time a new virus can emerge, some more deadly than others.

What this shows is that our current destructive interaction with the natural environment cannot continue, for our own sake. The current health, economic, political and social crisis that this virus has caused really impressively shows the importance of re-thinking how we relate and interact with nature. If we keep destroying forests and other natural ecosystems, we get into closer contact with new and potentially very dangerous diseases. If we also continue to hunt wild animals to bring them to markets where they are caged alive with other animals they would, in their natural habitat, not interact with, and we then slaughter and consume them, we constantly create the conditions for new viruses to emerge and jump to us. These markets must be closed and the selling of wild animals must be prohibited, otherwise we will see a new pandemic emerge. I hope that the current crisis will open people’s and policy-makers eyes to this danger and that we, as society, truly reconsider how we farm animals, consume meat and interact with nature.
 
The protection of biodiversity is not just a matter of moral duty, but because the loss of biodiversity (in terms of ecosystems, flora and fauna) has severe repercussions for people’s health and society, as we currently painfully experience.

What is the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in Colombia?

In Colombia the entire country shut down. It started with schools and Universities being officially closed from the 16th of March. On the 20th of March the government announced a trial lock-down in most of the major cities, which was then extended into a real, nationwide lockdown until (at least) the 13th of April. There are no international flights, which have been suspended until the end of April. National flights are also suspended until the end of the lock-down. People are staying home and most obey the rules or quarantine because the fines are quite high if you get caught outside by the police (without a valid reason).

Colombia will be particularly affected for several reasons.
 
1)    The current decline in oil prices will have a heavy impact for the national budget. But on the other hand, it might stop some future oil exploitation projects, which is good for the environment and local communities who would have been adversely affected by these.
 
2)    Colombia has a large share of Venezuelan refugees, who are a very vulnerable social group, often without housing and enough money to come by. In Colombia, millions of people live from day to day and under the current lock-down can no longer pursue their livelihoods (street vending, working day jobs in restaurants, etc.) and are facing severe financial hardship. The government did step in with emergency funds and food, but I am afraid that this will not be enough in the long run.
 
3)    Colombia has just been able to build up a tourism industry, which was compared to Ecuador and Peru very limited due to the armed conflict and the security issues of the past decades. All these efforts are at risk if international tourism suddenly stops for a longer time and all the people who build up their live around tourism (hostels, tour guides, restaurants and bars) are faced with uncertainty how to proceed. The long term effects might be severe, with more unemployment and poverty, which in Colombia and the absence of social security is especially dramatic.

How is your daily life impacted by the pandemic? 

I am currently in Colombia on an extended research visit as part of my research project on defaunation and hunting in the Amazon. I am now exclusively working from home in Bogotá, where I am with my partner, our two kids (5 years and 8 months old), my mother-in-law and sister-in law. We are not allowed to go outside, except for a three hour slot every week determined by the last digit on your ID card, and only alone to do essential things like shopping, bank errands, etc.. 

The fieldwork I had planned for March / April in the Colombian Amazon region got cancelled and I do not know if I will be able to do it later before (hopefully) returning to Sweden in early July. Meetings and interviews that I planned to carry out in Bogotá also got cancelled and I am trying to carry those out by other means (e.g. skype).

 

Reporting by Noomi Egan, originally published at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Sciences, LUCSUS

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