Protecting the Indigenous People of the Amazon

May 8, 2020
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Photo: A Marubo woman from the Vale do Javari indigenous territory. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

There is no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic will have long lasting ramifications on society for years to come, maybe even decades. Questions still need to be answered. Will we be able to stop the next zoonotic pandemic from having even a greater impact, killing even more people around the world? Can humanity unite as one strong voice and eliminate unsustainable pillaging of the last remaining wilderness areas on the planet? The truth is, this will not be the last pandemic that stifles humanity if we continue to ignore the links between infectious diseases and the destruction of the natural world.

If ever there was a time for leaders around the world to make a strong stand in favor of protecting wilderness areas that are still rich in biodiversity and supporting Indigenous Peoples to continue as the caretakers of their lands; then now is that time. And there is one specific place that needs this sort of urgent global attention; the Amazon.

Since our first Cousteau expedition to the Amazon in the early 1980s, this magical place of unimaginable biodiversity of flora, fauna and indigenous people, has held an important place in our lives. But much has threatened this special part of the world in the last 37 years with the encroachment of modern society and our insatiable appetite for harvesting raw materials from nature in an unsustainable fashion. Those most impacted by this type of unsustainable harvesting are those who are the most knowledgeable about the intricacies of their forested lands, the indigenous people of the Amazon. And today they just might be the most vulnerable, exposed to the rampant spread of a virus that originated thousands of miles away.

For some of us in the western world, our governments have given us strict guidelines on what to do to minimize the spread of coronavirus. These include social distancing, avoiding public places, and to simply stay at home. For the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon, the rainforest is their home and they need people to stay away if they are going to survive what has now been the worst pandemic of the past 100 years. Yet their government has not supported measures that would ensure their protection from the virus.

For a species to flourish within nature, we have come to learn and appreciate the importance of preserving biodiversity, the web of life that supports us all. But this means we not only protect plants, animals and wild places but also the cultural heritage of the indigenous people who have lived in these remote wilderness areas for centuries.

We have moved into a very harmful and greedy period of human history where we are destroying the environment at an unprecedented rate and putting economic growth ahead of environmental protection. We have the knowledge, the resources, and the power to ensure the protection of indigenous lands in order to protect them from invasion by illegal miners, loggers and land grabbers. It takes pressure from those who understand the biological and cultural significance of the Amazon - thus may we all come together as a loud collective voice, putting pressure on global leaders to protect the Amazon and its indigenous caretakers.

We have had the privilege of leading numerous expeditions to the remote corners of the Amazon, documenting both the stories of environmental successes as well shedding light on the plight of the indigenous people who continue to be disregarded by their governments. We stand with the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon who are fighting to safeguard their people and their lands from those who are entering Indigenous land illegally with total disregard for human life. These actions could lead to the spread of COVID19 to the most vulnerable on this planet. We cannot stand by and let this happen. As Sebastião Salgado recently stated: “We are on the eve of a genocide”.

Diversity of the Human Species is essential much like it is with plants and animals. However, unlike them we have the privilege of deciding not to disappear and we need to do everything to ensure that the Indigenous People of the Amazon are protected.

Warm regards,

Jean-Michel Cousteau
President, Ocean Futures Society

Céline Cousteau
Director & Producer, Tribes on the Edge

For more information or to support the work of Céline Cousteau in the Vale do Javari indigenous territory, Brazilian Amazon, please visit: tribesontheedge.com

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