Oxfam calls for action to avert the ethnocide of indigenous peoples

Published: 21st July 2020

The lives of 45 million people belonging to 800 indigenous peoples are at risk because of coronavirus, reveals a new report from Oxfam today. The agency is calling on Latin American governments to take strong measures to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

Far from hospitals and the news cameras, indigenous people in Latin America become ill and die without access to the means needed to protect themselves. They face the pandemic in conditions of social exclusion, racism and discrimination, which highlights historical inequalities and extreme precariousness in basic and health services.

Oxfam’s report 'Averting Ethnocide' shows how the Amazon region is one of those most affected. Of the 400 indigenous peoples in the Amazon, the virus had already reached 172 by mid-July. Figures show its impact is worse in these communities. In just two months, the number of deaths among the indigenous population increased nine-fold (from 113 to 1,018) due to COVID-19, twice the increase registered among the general population

This alarming death rate among the indigenous population reveals that “the effects of the health and economic crisis will exacerbate the structural inequalities and social exclusion already suffered by indigenous peoples, particularly women and displaced persons and refugees”, according to Asier Hernando, Oxfam’s Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

In the context of this crisis, indigenous women suffer triple discrimination because they are women, indigenous and poor. In this emergency due to the pandemic, caregiving responsibilities, which are generally assumed by women, increase and become even more costly as they imply a greater risk of infection. Women also have less access to healthcare and information in their native languages.  

Another problem facing indigenous peoples is the high death rate among the elderly, which has very serious consequences as it means a loss of leadership and transmitters of ancestral knowledge, key to the cultural survival of indigenous peoples.  

“The current situation for the indigenous peoples of Latin America is very alarming, as the COVID-19 pandemic is having a dire impact on our communities, primarily with regard to people’s health. Governments and states must urgently provide care for our population in a differentiated manner. Moreover, the implementation of culturally appropriate programs and projects is needed in the medium and long term to minimize the economic impact that this pandemic will have on indigenous peoples and communities in the region,” stated Jesús Amadeo Martínez Guzmán, General Coordinator of the Foro Indígena Abya Yala (FIAY). 

Responses by indigenous peoples 

Faced with government inaction to protect and guarantee the rights of the continent’s native populations, indigenous peoples have taken the initiative to establish measures for self-protection and isolation, developing their own response protocols, informative materials, solidarity networks and case tracking. They also continue their own traditional medicine practices and the production of basic foods.  

Unfortunately, self-protection measures taken by indigenous communities do not always have support from the state or from the companies that legally or illegally set up operations in their territories. 

Mining and oil companies, agro-industry and logging companies continue their operations without adopting adequate measures to protect against contagion in indigenous territories. Likewise, the illegal actors who enter these territories and surrounding areas also represent an extremely high threat of viral transmission. These outsiders have brought the virus to indigenous territories and spread the disease among local inhabitants. Furthermore, extractive activities are contaminating their water and lands.  


To address the COVID-19 pandemic and avert the ethnocide of indigenous peoples, Oxfam calls on the governments of Latin America to urgently coordinate with indigenous authorities in order to effectively provide their communities with needed protective equipment and diagnostic tests, ensure access to healthcare, water and food, particularly for the most vulnerable persons, and guarantee an end to violence and respect for human rights. Oxfam also calls on governments to respect and support quarantine boundaries established by indigenous communities in their territories and suspend all activities that represent a risk of contagion.  

“In the medium and long term, the region’s governments must adopt appropriate measures to protect indigenous peoples and provide the investment needed to mitigate the socioeconomic impact of the health crisis affecting them. Governments must also undertake the measures necessary to reduce the disparities in access to healthcare and water, guarantee collective territorial rights, and transform the model of growth based on extractivism and the overexploitation of natural resources, which has toxic effects on the life of communities and on the environment,” added Hernando.     

Notes to editors

Contact information

Alejandra Aguilar in the Dominican Republic | alejandra.aguilar@oxfam.org | +1 (829) 679-2806

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