“The Awajún people and the Wampis people left their camps and went to the mountains, but they were still infected with covid,” explains Gil Inoach, an indigenous from the first of these ethnic groups, from his bed recovering from the disease. , from 1992 to 1996, president of the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP). He takes care of himself when he speaks, he pauses, because the evil has not completely left his body.
He is in Yurimaguas, a city in the north-eastern Peruvian jungle, and from his cautious voice he begins to weave his memories of this pandemic and previous epidemics, which he keeps with intensity. “When I was six years old, I lived in Yurapaga, an Awajún community, and we escaped from measles by going inside the forest. It was 1972 and we stayed there for about a month ”, he says.
Suddenly, his memory is activated and brings more episodes: his father, César Inoach -who also suffered from covid recently- told him several times that in 1957 measles also came through those indigenous territories and that, since they did not know how to protect themselves, several times people went into a single shelter and died there. “In a full house they all died, but he was saved. Maybe that’s why when he heard that this virus was returning to the area, we decided to flee ”.
In 1972 they only returned to their community several weeks later, when they learned from indigenous people who collected information from nearby towns that the outbreak had disappeared. In the long and tragic health history of the Amazonian natives, this sequence has been repeated several times: they appear sick, it is not known what it is about, or the evil is already known, some people flee to the mountains, others stay. The latter tend to suffer more.
The memory of the impact of diseases among indigenous peoples includes alert attitudes and the development of strategies to try to stay safe from them ”, says anthropologist Beatriz Huertas
In the trial The effect of pests on the populations of the Upper Amazon, published in 1988 in the magazine Peruvian Amazone, anthropologist Thomas P. Myers recounts a macabre string of epidemics that plagued this region for centuries. According to him, some diseases would have been brought there by Francisco de Orellana and his men around 1541. Among them smallpox, which had already hit the Inca Empire hard.
The thousand and one epidemics
In 1638 there was an outbreak of measles, right in the area where Gil and his father fled from the same disease in 1972. Between 1654 and 1655, smallpox returned, in what today are the Amazonian territories of Brazil and Peru, and would have caused death. than 80,000 indigenous people in the Jesuit missions. In 1660 measles again entered and another 60,000 died, of the Maina, Roamaina and Zapa ethnic groups. The chain of terror that continues to this day is quite long.
The Spanish and Portuguese also succumbed, but the natives carried the most fatal part of the contagions. By 1704, always according to Myers, 70,000 of the Patanahua ethnic group would have died from the plagues, to the point that they were almost extinct. We should not go so far back: in 2005, UNICEF reported that an epidemic of hepatitis B, in the Upper Amazon (the area described by Myers), put the Candoshi ethnic group at severe risk.
“The memory of the impact of diseases among indigenous peoples contains alert attitudes and the development of strategies to try to stay safe from them,” says anthropologist Beatriz Huertas, who knows well the painful adventures of these peoples, both the contacted as those in isolation. In fact, the latter live like this until today because they fled to avoid viruses and various invaders.
Evils, bullets and patterns
“I did not get sick because I took plant remedies,” says Marcela Roque, an indigenous woman from the Bora ethnic group who, at 80 years of age, retains a lucidity that illuminates the forest. For her, sacha garlic and other medicinal plants helped her survive the covid. She was never infected, even though she lives in the community of Pucaurquillo, where the pandemic hit in 2020. She is the head of a maloca, an Amazon communal house.
For Marcela Roque, an indigenous woman of the Bora ethnic group, sacha ajo and other medicinal plants helped her survive the covid
He still keeps a manguaré (indigenous percussion instrument), inherited from his ancestors, but at the same time he harbors the memory of several epidemics, as well as the imprint of the war that Peru and Colombia staged between 1932 and 1933. Also the memory of the brutal rubber rush of those years. “Then there was measles,” he says and, as in the case of Gil, he says that it was his father who led an exodus to other places.
The Bora initially lived in the Putumayo river basin, where the border conflict between the two countries broke out, at a time when businessman Julio César Arana had established by blood and fire an empire for rubber exploitation. He kept the indigenous people in conditions of scandalous slavery, which caused some to flee further into Peruvian territory in the context of the confrontation.
They were haunted by measles, war, and the cruelty of Arana’s men. Marcela’s family was one of those who fled to the Pebas area, in the Peruvian Amazon department of Loreto, and she experienced the hangover of all this as a child. “I saw sick people. Among them my sister ”. The indigenous people who entered Colombia also became infected with measles and died by the hundreds.
The anthropologist Alberto Chirif in his book After rubber, It refers that the virus would have been to Colombian territory by Peruvian Army ships during the conflict. María heard those horrendous stories in her own family, but also in more recent years she saw diseases such as cholera, whooping cough, and tuberculosis reach Pebas to take root in her community. And finally the covid-19 arrived.
His grandson, Brus Rubio, is now a painter and made several charcoal paintings during the pandemic, “thinking about his ancestors” and trying to portray the drama of today and that of the past. “We get sick but we have strength,” he says, recalling that his family clan is associated with the fur, a kind of sloth bear “very resistant to rain.” In his drawings, men and animals appear helping each other.
The providential forest
“The forest or mount, as a protective refuge against threats that can ‘devour’ their spirit and put their health at risk, works as a hard drive in the culture of the Amazonian indigenous peoples,” says Ismael Vega, director of the Amazon Center of Anthropology and Practical Application (CAAAP). It is not strange, therefore, that during the current pandemic several ethnic groups have taken refuge in the jungle and closed their borders.
The life story of Pablo Yorike, a leader of the Harakbut ethnic group who lives in the southern jungle of Peru, confirms this. It has been written by Yesica Patiachi, her granddaughter, and tells how she was able to deal with four epidemics between 1945 and 1947, after coming into contact with the Dominicans. “He manages to survive thanks to the forest; he and his family took refuge there and consumed local products and herbs, enjoyed the new air, ”the text reads.
They do not have defenses against some viruses or bacteria, as happened since the beginning of the colony (the great allies of the conquerors were diseases), and they do not have a sanitary infrastructure to sustain them. Therefore, they choose to go to the mountain
It is more or less what Marcela and Gil have: the forest as a providential resource, as a place where life is better, and in which there are animals, fish, plants that save and, of course, the presence of the ancestors. Pablo, in addition, was “the owner of innumerable healing songs and spells to cure the spiritual ills of the harakbut”, something that cannot be separated from the fight against diseases in the indigenous world.
Dr. Omar Trujillo, a specialist in intercultural health, has an interpretation of these responses. “Since ancient times, the worldview of the indigenous population regarding their health has been comprehensive. Person and environment have always been associated, and the way of dealing with the diseases of these peoples has been by isolating themselves, putting up physical barriers. It was the same with covid-19 ”. They do not have defenses against some viruses or bacteria, as happened since the beginning of the colony (the great allies of the conquerors were diseases), and they do not have a sanitary infrastructure to sustain them. For this reason, they choose to go into the mountains, as happened in recent months with the families of Gil, Marcela, and Yesica. They seek their own salvation, but they can even help other people to save themselves.
There is something that perhaps is not being valued: in the face of epidemics, and perhaps for centuries, the indigenous people have taught us how to survive, and at the same time the art of isolation, today practiced throughout the world
In the past months The Bora supplied food – fish, animals, bananas, yuccas – to the port of Pebas, where rather riparian settlers live (inhabitants who are not indigenous, but are settled in the jungle). There is something that perhaps is not being valued: in the face of epidemics, and perhaps for centuries, the indigenous people have taught us how to survive, and at the same time the art of isolation, today practiced throughout the world.
Resist or die
Pablo Yorique died in 2019, without receiving from the Peruvian State the title of ‘Meritorious Personality of Culture’, which his family had requested, despite the fact that his oral accounts served for several investigations. Gil Inoach survived the covid-19 and continues to be a benchmark in the indigenous world. Marcela continues to live in Pucaurquillo, where she is considered a very respectable woman.
Brus Rubio, his grandson, continues to paint, according to himself “to maintain hope in life.” The same is done by Lastenia Canayo, an indigenous woman from the Shipibo-Konibo ethnic group who has tried to portray even the virus itself on her canvases, as a testimony of these painful times. Of so many indigenous people who fell over the centuries, due to diseases of the body and soul.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.