April 24, 2020 / 8:38 PM / 4 months ago

Peru indigenous warn of 'ethnocide by inaction' as coronavirus hits Amazon tribes

LIMA (Reuters) - Indigenous tribes in Peru’s Amazon say the government has left them to fend for themselves against the coronavirus, risking “ethnocide by inaction,” according to a letter from natives to the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

FILE PHOTO - A member of an indigenous group from the Amazon region attend a meeting with Pope Francis at the Coliseo Regional Madre de Dios in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

The formal complaint asks the U.N. and international courts to force the government to take “concrete action” to ensure their survival, citing the 1948 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Eight native leaders representing 1,800 communities in the Peruvian Amazon signed the letter which was published by indigenous group AIDESEP on Thursday.

Health experts have warned the spreading virus could be lethal for the Amazon´s indigenous people, who have been decimated for centuries by diseases brought by Europeans, from smallpox and malaria to the flu.

“They send messages every day about what the (government) is going to do in the cities, but nothing for indigenous peoples,” Lizardo Cauper, president of AIDESEP, told Reuters. “For us, this is discrimination.”

Government representatives did not respond to requests for comment. But President Martín Vizcarra said two weeks ago officials were working to bring aid to the region after natives had voluntarily isolated themselves to avoid the virus.

At least four natives from the Puerto Bethel region, a remote Amazon wilderness community two hours by river from the capital of Ucayali, have contracted the disease, according to a spokesman for the Ministry of Health.

The Ministry of Culture said earlier this week that it shipped supplies for improving sanitation and hygiene to Puerto Bethel and was monitoring the situation.

BANANA LEAVES

The natives infected with coronavirus have self-isolated in a local community, said Ronald Suarez, president of the Shipibo Konibo Xetebo ethnic group. But they have few supplies to protect themselves, he told Reuters.

“People put up banana leaves to protect themselves,” Suarez said, explaining they could be used as a makeshift mask.

He said medications and treatment options are also in short supply, forcing many to treat symptoms with medicinal plants.

Peru’s Ombudsman’s Office warned earlier this month the disease could spread quickly to other indigenous communities if officials do not take fast action.

The ombudsman says only 4 of 10 communities have health care facilities in this poor, remote region of the Amazon.

Peru reported 21,648 cases of the coronavirus on Friday, the second highest tally in Latin America, and 634 related deaths. There have been no reports of indigenous people killed by the virus.

Reporting by Maria Cervantes; Additional reporting by Marco Aquino; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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