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Tradition and technology: indigenous women leading the fight against pandemic

Indigenous women networks in Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia struggling to outweigh States’ lack of presence and the impacts of Coronavirus in their communities

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Whatsapp groups in which Cristiane Julião, -of the Pankararu indigenous people,  participates ring constantly with messages from people all over the country and the world. Isolated in her territory, an indigenous community in Pernambuco, Brazil, since the beginning of the pandemic, but always connected to the internet, she collaborates in solidarity networks to assist native people in their struggle against coronavirus. 

Collective efforts take place in many ways, either with food staples, individual protection equipments or promotion and participation in social media events, to expose how the lack of policies by the Brazilian government is affecting indigenous people in the country. 

“We advocate and demand that women should be our reference points, since they are the ones who know the needs and the logic of distribution. This is a huge network made by women. We think and act as an organization, always thinking collectively, not only regarding us, indigenous people, but everyone”, says Cristiane. 

Know more: This report is part of the special “Indigenous Women and Territory against the misrule in pandemic times”

Indigenous women in the front lines of actions filling the gap left by public institutions, is a fact, not only in Brazil, but also in other countries of Latin America such as Paraguay and Bolivia. Realities experienced are similar due to neglect, result of a colonial heritage, and also to indigenous cosmology based on self-care, collective protection, survival instinct and resistance, when native people recall a past in which they were exposed to unknown diseases that eradicated many populations.  

Maria Leonice Tupari, coordinator of the Associação das Guerreiras Indígenas de Rondônia -AGIR (Rondônia Indigenous Warriors Association) is part of some -if not of all- the same Whatsapp groups as Cristiane. She is never far away from her cellphone in the attempt to find solutions for women of 30 ethnic groups, that are part of the association and that cannot rely on the government. She affirms that the lack of measures aimed to indigenous women in times of pandemic is general and each community has been doing whatever is possible.  

Reality is that, left to their own luck, indigenous peoples have created their own mechanisms to prevent the exposure of communities to coronavirus, and many have established their own lockdowns through sanitary barriers. 

Autonomy and self-governance, for which indigenous peoples are striving, have been their salvation. But at the same time, women leaders make it clear that autonomy is not equivalent to be neglected by public authorities. “The Brazilian government must initially recognize that indigenous peoples are part of the groups at risk. Based on this reality, the government should have already created a plan to counter and mitigate the impacts of pandemic, with the participation of indigenous and traditional peoples and communities on these particular contexts. Instead, what we see is an atrocious, vile, genocidal, sadistic policy, full of countless human and fundamental rights violations, with no respect to indigenous peoples and not even considering what we want or need.  And it is the autonomy of indigenous peoples what keeps us alive in politics, economy, justice, tradition and in the faith on our Encantados*”, explains Cristiane. 

The virus arrives, not the assistance 

Maria Leonice Tupari, from Brazil; Eva Melgar, from Bolívia and Cristiane Julião Pankararu, from Brazil. Fotos: Arquivo pessoal/ Estúdio Rebimboca

Despite efforts to isolate the communities, the virus is finding its way to enter the territories.  The transit to cities to access the public emergency aid, for example, has created a constant flow to banks that has led to contamination, says Leonice and Cristiane. In addition, there are indigenous women who already live on the cities peripheries, one of AGIR’s main concerns.

“We have many women in the cities, either because they are studying or were unable to return to their communities, due to the lack of money, the difficult access to these places, or even because their lands are not demarcated and they end up living on the fringe of the cities, without any infrastructure. The situation of some of them is extremely vulnerable because they depend on working and so, they are facing needs. We are in a campaign to take food to them,” she says. 

The situation is similar in the neighboring country Paraguay.  The organization of ancestral and popular studies Ary Ojasojavo, of which Sofia Oviedo is part, is attempting to assist 59 indigenous communities located in the border with Brazil, in the district of Amambay, adjacent to the city of Ponta Porã, in Mato Grosso do Sul, that are now in urgent need of government assistance related to food and health. 

According to her, they are indigenous people who were working in Brazil and are now going through very bad living conditions. In addition to humanitarian difficulties, the risk of contamination is also one of their concerns, since, according to the National Committee of Indigenous Life and Memory, Brazil already reckons for more than 660 deaths among indigenous people caused by coronavirus.  

The organization, headed by Sofia, issued a note to the Indigenous People Commission of the Paraguayan Senate requesting the institutions to exert their effort in the safe return of indigenous professionals who are currently in Brazil. “We also request the provision of a definitive solution to the lack of assistance for the entire Amambay community, since health and food crises are wide spread. All indigenous people rights, territorial and fundamental, are being trespassed. There are many needs and few responses being provided.”

Women for the collectivity

According to Sofia, with the pandemic crisis, the lack of answers brought into the light very strong structural problems but, at the same time, it also revealed the importance of women in these communities. “Indigenous women are not at the center of any public policy, but they should be, as they are fundamental for the existence of this caring network”, says Sofia. 

She says that either in the most distant territories or even in the central region of Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, it is possible to see and understand women’s capacities in the creation of harmonic bonds with people around them.  “One of the core aspects of the power of indigenous women is their ability to develop and strengthen these connections and fabric, both in the literal sense, which is its relationship with cotton, an ancestral plant, and also with several foundations of traditional harmony. These women have a strong relationship with health, indigenous medicine, traditional knowledge on the uses of medicinal plants and all of this is very powerful.” 

For Cristiane Pankararu, the women’s movement is a collective effort because they see themselves in each other. “I do not need to be slapped to understand what is domestic violence. The pain felt by one woman is transferred to the other.  The greatest good takes place for everyone. When the tree is full of fruits, I don´t feed myself only, but everyone else. This is sharing. When we say our prayers, we ask our spiritual guides to soften this selfish vision and lead us to something more human and supportive.”

Resistances in the face of a discriminatory policy

A policy that is not racist and aimed at indigenous peoples and, especially women, is the starting point for Eva Melgar, who is an indigenous leadership from the Ramada community in Bolivia. She, who identifies herself as a feminist activist, says that even though coronavirus is something totally new, they have being doing whatever is needed to maintain the safety of indigenous women in the region of San José de Chiquitos, comprised in the district of Santa Cruz de La Sierra, where there are  37,831 confirmed cases, according to the August 12 epidemiological report, and is by far the region with the highest number of cases in the entire country. 

In the community where Eva lives the virus has not arrived yet, but is already impacting the lives of indigenous women since, due to the isolation in the communities, they are no longer able to sell handicrafts in the cities, and so they have to look for other supporting strategies. They are also trying to understand how indigenous cosmovision can help fighting the pandemic through the use of traditional natural home remedies. 

“It seems that we are forgotten in this critical situation taking place in the country and, if the pandemic reaches our communities, we have no way to survive, because there is no one to care for us.  We need quality medical assistance, adequate structure, either in the community or in the city, where we can be attended according to our own culture and customs”, Eva says. 

Sofia also feels the same sense of abandonment and says that there are no alternatives for the existing economies in the territories and that both, hand craft work and local agriculture, are on a standstill and, consequently, women have no income. She says that the bases of the indigenous vision seek their own references in ancestral knowledge and they have been taken care of health through chants, for example. “The chants contain the foundation of the ways of life. They are singing to find answers for whatever is bad. Women have a very interesting resilience capacity.” 

In the Brazilian Amazon, helplessness is a constant sensation and the pandemic only increased the lack of support from the State that has always existed. “We, women count only with ourselves to receive information, but we have strengthened ourselves through meetings and spaces online. If there was no possibility to rely on technology, we would have been exterminated, as happened in the past.  We, women are in charge of all actions that are being taken, from writing documents to the submission of requests to authorities. And if we need to be isolated until the end of the year, we are ready. We are always ready.” 

*Encantados are ancestor spirits from the Pankararu people. 

This report is part of the special coverage in partnership with Fondo Acción Urgente and La Ruda, from Guatemala, to bring visibility to the fight of indigenous women against the pandemy. Read the editorial. 

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