Call to Action: Urgent- Indigenous Peoples, Conflict and the Pandemic


Dear friends of international civil society,

Uru Eu Wau Wau People Forest Guardians, Brazil
Photo: Gabriel Uchida

On the 18th of April we received the news that Ari Uru Eu Wau Wau, 33 years old, community teacher and member of the Forest Guardians of the Uru Eu Wau Wau people, was assassinated at the borders of their collective territory in the state of Rondonia, Brazil.

We, Friends of the Earth Sweden and the undersigned organizations, act in solidarity with our fellows in Latin American and ask for your support by sending the letter of solidarity below, via this link (en español aquí), to the international authorities responsible for monitoring the global response to the current health crisis.

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic comes into an unequal world. It is with great sadness that we see how this pandemic is affecting the world with millions sick and thousands dead. The pandemic not only affects our health systems but it is also making the inequalities of our society even more visible, putting those who are already marginalized at the greatest risk. It will therefore affect societies and peoples in different ways.

Inequalities are not only great between countries (as an example, Mozambique had a total of 34 respirators available in its public health system as of March 22) but also at national levels as in some countries these inequalities are more prominent than in others. One common denominator among Latin American countries, and many others all around the world, is that indigenous groups suffer disproportionate consequences in this context of COVID-19 due to discriminating structures already in place. These groups often live in areas with less infrastructure, less access to medical staff and supplies as well as less access to decision makers and platforms for making their voices heard. Indigenous territories are often in very isolated areas, such as the Brazilian Amazon, where an individual in need of a respirator might need to travel 1000km on a boat to the nearest hospital. A structured health care system with focus on indigenous people´s health is nonexistent or insufficient, disregarding the particularities of the ethnic minorities such as cultural diversity, medical knowledge and worldview, livelihood, language, internal governance and geographical location.

Indigenous peoples are an at-risk group in this pandemic. Indigenous peoples are in general more vulnerable to viruses or any externally-introduced infect-contagious disease, even if young and in good health, than the general public. Furthermore, indigenous peoples have suffered centuries of marginalization and today many live in the context of extreme poverty. Therefore, individuals with underlying conditions such as diabetes, tuberculosis, anemia and malnutrition, are overrepresented among Latin-American indigenous peoples.

This pandemic comes into a world in conflict. Local, national and international conflicts are affecting indigenous peoples all over the world. For example, all Latin-American countries have until now provided insufficient protection of indigenous peoples´ territories and leaders, and indigenous people are overrepresented in the numbers of Human Rights Defenders killed around the world. They are also the main victims of other security threats such as murder attempts, death threats and internal displacement. The Awa nationality, for example, have their territory in northern Ecuador and southern Colombia. They have been considered a people at risk of physical, cultural and spiritual extinction by the Colombian Supreme Court. For the last 30 years, the Awa people have been suffering the presence of legal and illegal armed groups, who have killed more than 8000 Awa victims and have caused and continue to cause the displacement of hundreds of families. The Awa people have called the governments of Ecuador and Colombia to activate health protocols in dialogue with the Awa authorities to protect the Awa population. The Awa also reaffirms solidarity with all peoples throughout Latin America who find themselves under similar pressure, despite contextual differences.

The Pandemic becomes an excuse for countries to further withdraw their attention from the protection of territories and leaders. Measures such as quarantines have increased the presence of illegal miners, illegal loggers, hunters and land-grabbers in indigenous people’s territories. In Brazil, the first case of a contaminated Yanomami is connected to illegal miners, as the conflict over territory goes on without drawing attention. We must not forget those assassinated during the pandemic, the State must investigate and guarantee justice. In southern Colombia, armed groups have threatened to assassinate any person that presents COVID-19 symptoms as a “control measure”.

Furthermore, business operating in areas of conflict pose a grave threat to local groups as investment and corporate projects continue operations despite the pandemic. Not only is there a lack of measures for the protection of communities living close to operational areas, but also legal land-grabbing is being expanded while civil society has less capacity for reaction to political decisions that cause displacement and loss of rights. An example is Guatemala, a country with majority indigenous population, of Mayan decent, garifuna, xinca and mestizos. Corporations and the State systematically plunder water and land through projects such as hydropower plants, mining, energy transmission and monocultures, in violation of the ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration of Indigenous Peoples. The planning and implementation of such projects have not been paused during the pandemic, even though their purpose is exportation, a non-essential service.

All these components result in an inadmissible situation in which indigenous peoples are largely left on their own to handle the pandemic despite the reality that they have no access to resources and that the pandemic threatens to wipe out entire communities. The United Nations has urged states to include the specific needs of indigenous communities in their protocols but does not recognize that the situation of violence and vulnerability that these groups are exposed to is a result of the abandonment of these very States. It follows that the efforts taken are far too little and far too slow; there must be a stronger position from the international community. We therefore ask for your help to call upon the World Health Organization and the United Nations to ensure that indigenous leaders and communities are receiving sufficient support in their struggles against COVID-19, and that their rights are being fulfilled as States search for solutions.

To support this call you can:

  1. Send the letter below directly to the recipients via this link, (en español aquí)
  2. Sign on this Statement as an organization by sending an email to Deadline: 30 April 2020. We will be updating the list of supporters continuously
  3. Share as widely as you can in your networks!


The letter

23 April 2020


Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General; António Guterres, UN Secretary-General; Ms. Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


Mr. Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the United Nations General Assembly; Members of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the UN; Dr Carissa F. Etienne, WHO Regional Director for the Americas; Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; Dr Ibrahima Socé Fall, Assistant Director-General, Emergency Response; Ms Jane Ellison, WHO Executive Director for External Relations and Governance

We, the undersigned, are writing to you to join the voices of those demanding an effective, participatory and culturally appropriate response to the COVID-19 pandemic in this letter of solidarity with indigenous peoples and communities in areas of conflict over land and nature. We call upon the World Health Organization and the United Nations to recognize indigenous people as an at-risk group during the COVID-19 pandemic and to take measures that mirror that recognition:

  • Set up a working group to work in dialogue with the indigenous federations and authorities from different countries
  • Call states to, in dialogue with indigenous authorities and federations of their country:
    • Develop and present their protocol for protecting the health of indigenous peoples, according to the international obligations to the human rights of health, life and self-determination;
    • Develop and present their protocol for providing timely and accurate communication and information directed to indigenous authorities to allow for informed decisions
    • Present their measures for effectively protecting the lives of indigenous and community leaders and engage in effective investigations of the assassinations of leaders occurring during this pandemic;
    • Present their measures for effectively protecting the right to territory of indigenous peoples, especially those in areas of conflict, as an essential measure to prevent the spread of the virus;
    • Suspend projects that imply displacement of people until there are conditions for the effective participation of civil society,
    • Immediately cease extractive mining, oil, and logging activity and industrial agriculture within or on the border of any indigenous territories;

The vulnerability that indigenous peoples are facing in this pandemic is due, in many instances, to their being physically more vulnerable to viruses or any externally-introduced infect-contagious disease, to having no or insufficient access to healthcare, and to being victims of discrimination, violence, and illegal or legal threats to their land. The COVID-19 pandemic exposes the inequalities of access to political decision-making structures as countries withdraw their responsibility over minority groups. With this letter we therefore ask the UN to publicly, and firmly, recognize the territories of indigenous peoples as areas of current and continuing conflict, and the WHO to recognize indigenous people as populations particularly vulnerable to the pandemic and thereby commit to supporting them in having their rights fulfilled in accordance with the demands above.

Access here for the Official Statement from Gran Familia Awa.

Yours sincerely,



  • Jordens Vänner – Friends of the Earth Sweden
  • Associação Japaú – Uru Eu Wau Wau People, Brazil
  • Gran Familia Awá – Binational people, Ecuador and Colombia
  • Associação Metareilá – Paiter-Suruí People, Brazil
  • UDAPT – Union of People Affected by Texaco-Chevron, Ecuador
  • Associação de Defesa Etno-Ambiental Kanindé, Brazil
  • CEIBA Asociación para la Promoción y Desarrollo de la Comunidad / Friends of the Earth Guatemala

Signatory Organizations:

  • Milieudefensie / Friends of the Earth Netherlands
  • La Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas para la Comunidad Andina de Naciones (CONPICAN), Columbia
  • Multicultural Sverige, Sweden
  • Climaxi vzw, Belgium
  • Joyful Life Center Malmö, Sweden
  • Frente de Mujeres Defensoras de la Pachamama, Ecuador
  • Red Latinoamericana de Mujeres – Red ULAM
  • Instituto Gaia – Mato Grosso, Brazil
  • Mouvement Ecologique, Friends of the Earth Luxembourg
  • Environmental Rights Action / Friends of the Earth​ Nigeria
  • Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center / Friends of the Earth Philippines
  • Justiça Ambiental!  / Friends of the Earth​ Moçambique
  • Friends of the Earth Canada 
  • NOAH / Friends of the Earth Denmark
  • Asociación Madre Tierra Honduras – Friends of the Earth Honduras
  • OADPI – Observatorio por la Autonomia y los Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas de Colombia

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