As Latin America hurtles toward its coronavirus peak, Amazonian indigenous peoples are warning that the untimely loss of their elders threatens their existence and cultures like never before. As if unrestrained resource extraction, colonization and globalization hadn’t generated a great enough crisis, the rapid propagation of COVID-19 into Amazonian indigenous territories now risks annihilating the last generation of community elders, the pillars of their cultures and guardians of ancestral wisdom.

In the absence of adequate government support and aid, indigenous nations in the Ecuadorian Amazon have been working tirelessly to self-organize and protect the health of their elders who are among their most vulnerable demographic. Tragically, at least four elders from the Waorani and Siekopai nations have already succumbed to the novel coronavirus over the past two months. Indigenous nations have repeatedly denounced government inaction and even filed a lawsuit to press for immediate measures to protect their peoples. Many global allies and institutions including the United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights are advocating for an urgent response and amplifying the indigenous movement’s just demands.

In the face of COVID-19, indigenous peoples fear a repeat of history. As Latin America underwent colonization, thousands of cultures were wiped out within the first century of contact, decimating an estimated 90% of the continent’s indigenous population. Yet the survival of hundreds of indigenous nations into the 21st century is also a stark testament to the spirit of resistance and resilience among Amazonian grandmothers and grandfathers, who have fought seemingly insurmountable odds, against wave upon wave of invasions and threats, from foreign diseases to rubber tappers and oil companies.

This photo-essay is a homage to these Amazonian elders, to whom we also owe our gratitude as a global community, and from whom we still have much to learn today. Thanks to their tireless struggle and knowledge, our world’s most important rainforest is still standing and sustaining life on our planet.

“COVID-19 could be fatal for all of our elders. Our elders are our warriors and they have always taught us how to care for nature. If our Pekinani (traditional authorities) disappear, we risk losing our ancestral knowledge and culture. We must protect them.”

– Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo

“Our elders, who are the source of our wisdom and knowledge, are in great danger. They still have a lot to say and share, and we must act quickly to save them from this virus.”

– Siekopai youth filmmaker Jimmy Piaguaje

“Our elders have always protected our forest and territory. They are strongly connected with our yagé (ayahuasca), they have seen what we will face in the future. They guide us and protect us on the path forward.”

– Siona leader Adiela Mera

Amazon Frontlines

Amazon FrontlinesDefending indigenous rights to land, life and cultural survival in the Amazon rainforest.

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