By Jess Cherofsky
Cultural Survival is grateful to Miryam Yataco, Roger Mondaluisa Sinuiri, Ronin Suarez, and Wendy Pineda Ortiz for the interviews.
“Our medicinal plants save lives”
Yarinacocha, Peru: one hour from Lima by plane, over sixteen hours by car. The district is powerfully hot, situated in the Amazon jungle region of Ucayali. It is known for cacao, agriculture, and livestock production, including yucca, plantain, papaya, and tobacco. And there, on the banks of the Ucayali River, are Indigenous communities hard hit by the Coronavirus. These communities are now being treated by a new group of medical practitioners, Comando Matico, doing what neither the government nor mainstream medical services have done for Peru’s Indigenous Peoples. They are saving people’s lives.
It started with a trip to Cantagallo, a shantytown in Peru’s capital, Lima. Cantagallo was settled two decades ago by Shipibo Konibo Indigenous Peoples displaced from their lands in the Amazon rainforest by illegal logging and mining projects. Roger Mondaluisa Sinuiri (Shipibo), one of the founding members of Comando Matico, tells how some professor and activist friends had gathered to brainstorm how they could support their people in Cantagallo from where they live in Yarinacocha in the Amazon. Between seventy and eighty percent of Cantagallo’s population had been infected with COVID-19. The day after test results showed this infection rate, the community awoke to newly erected fences guarded by police and military to prevent entering or leaving. While the whole country had already been under a quarantine order, this imprisonment of Cantagallo specifically suddenly meant restricted access to potable water, food, and medical care. An initial group of five Comando Matico members brought a delivery of the medicinal plant matico (spiked pepper shrub) to Cantagallo. The community was grateful for this traditional medicine, and the Comando Matico project grew from there. “We saw the need of Indigenous Peoples here in the Peruvian Amazon, that they were dying daily,” Roger says. “And we said, enough with the deaths of our Indigenous brothers and sisters.”
Roger sounds energized when he tells Cultural Survival about the founding and accomplishments of Comando Matico, which currently comprises nine members who provide medical treatment. After a period of exclusively home visit care, Comando Matico was provided access to a church to set up a facility, and then when they were no longer permitted there, they relocated. “From the beginning, we’ve self-financed,” Roger says. “When we didn’t have supplies, we lent each other the money...This is how we’ve been doing it, as a group, as a team. Because at the beginning, when they gave us the space [for a facility], it was empty. They gave us three cots and an oxygen tank. Nothing else.” Roger brought the gas tank that he uses for his Ayahuasca medicine, pots, and a stove. Other members brought other materials. “We’re volunteers, and we set our own hours so we don’t get too tired, and everyone also needs to find a job since we’re not paid for this.”
Each Comando member has their own caseload, patients with whom they check in daily. So far, they have only lost one patient, someone who had arrived in critical condition and whom the Comando tended through their final hours. Before Comando Matico’s founding, there was nothing like it. Another team had been established to gather those who had died of COVID-19. Comando Matico, Roger says, “posed an alternative, saying, enough. Enough collecting the dead. They can collect the dead, and we will dedicate ourselves to saving lives.”
The group’s namesake treatment involves creating a steam with the matico plant and other native plants of the Amazon rainforest, along with eucalyptus, onion, lemon, and chamomile* which together alleviate blockages in the lungs. They also use teas and syrups. “We don’t have anyone to support us, but we’re going to get them to support us. We’re going to demonstrate that our medicinal plants are of huge importance and need during this time of the pandemic. And that’s what we did, showed everyone that our medicinal plants do work, do save lives, even though others say they don’t. Because we are the people who really work and live with these plants during these pandemic times. And we’re very happy to see the results that our medicinal plants offer.”
“The government has been totally indifferent”
This powerful grassroots project, which has successfully treated over 500 patients with both Indigenous medicine and commercial medicine in multiple communities, is a vital response to a devastating nationwide truth: the Peruvian government has systematically excluded Indigenous Peoples from COVID-19 response services, resulting in staggering illness rates and deaths. Moreover, the Peruvian government is not tracking COVID-19 data in Indigenous communities, an exclusion which invisibilizes impacts on Indigenous Peoples and further distances them from adequate interventions. Peru is the country with the 43rd largest population in the world, yet it has the fifth highest number of COVID-19 cases as of August 2020, approximately 622,000. Forty-five percent of the population is Indigenous.
Ronald Suarez Maynas is based in Pucallpa, capital city of the Ucayali department. He is the apu (president) of the Shipibo Konibo Xetebo Council, representing over 35,000 people in over 166 communities. He himself has suffered from COVID-19, fortunately recovering thanks to matico medicine. Yet his mother, Marcelina Mayna Collantes, a beloved textile artist, linguist, land defender, and elder, died from the virus; Apu Ronald could not visit her due to his own illness. “It was possibly the most terrible news I could have received in my life,” he says. When Apu Ronald’s family requested oxygen from regional and federal governments, responses were slow. When the family finally got their hands on an oxygen tank, the cost was impossibly high. A day’s worth of oxygen costs what a family would spend on food over two or three months. “The government has been totally indifferent,” says sociolinguist and international language rights scholar and activist Miryam Yataco (Quechua-Muchik). “They have done absolutely nothing at all.”
Apu Ronald describes to Cultural Survival a federal response whose exclusion of Indigenous Peoples is deadly. The “hospitals are collapsing quickly,” and the government has failed to provide medicine or oxygen. Almost every community in the Peruvian Amazon has been hit by the virus. While he counts over 130 dead in the Shipibo Konibo community and estimates 10,000 infected, he points out that the state has reported just two dead and five infected. His May 2020 letter to the incoming United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples describes a testing process that, when it does arrive in communities, accounts for a tiny percentage of the population and excludes the most vulnerable, such as elders who cannot physically get to testing locations. “We’re invisible,” he says. Unable to count on the government to track COVID-19’s impact in their communities, the communities gather their own statistics.
Apu Ronald lauds Comando Matico’s work. “All these people aren’t traditional medical practitioners, nor western doctors. They have simply received training from their ancestors, from their parents...They’ve saved more than 500 lives, that’s the number I have...and this achieves more than the hospital. There are many people who don’t go to the hospital, even if they have symptoms, because there is a lot of distrust...that people who go to the hospitals don’t return, that they’re definitely going to die. There is scarcity of oxygen, mistreatment, lack of medicine, lots of things.” He says, with plants like matico, “We have saved ourselves. Without this, it would have been a massive death of our people.” Both Wendy Pineda Ortiz of the Rainforest Foundation and Miryam Yataco, with whom Cultural Survival also spoke, reiterate the importance of Comando Matico’s work. While the Comando’s impact is extraordinary in the communities they are reaching, resources and support are needed if locally based practitioners are to operate at the scale that is desperately needed given the scale of COVID-19 infections in Indigenous communities nationwide.
The government’s failed response represents a lethal missed opportunity to capitalize on the organizational strengths of Indigenous communities. “The Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon responded pretty quickly when information on COVID-19 arrived,” Wendy Pineda Ortiz tells Cultural Survival. “They strengthened their land governance measures, and they self-isolated in their communities. Many took their elders away to hide them in less populated places, or places that were harder to access. They closed their borders...This organizational capacity of the Indigenous Peoples could have been a great opportunity for the Peruvian government. [The government] could have organized to generate an adequate response to provide care to the Indigenous Peoples, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.” The government’s failure meant that Indigenous communities’ own responses had no reinforcement, and COVID-19 quickly spread from the Brazilian border into the Peruvian department of Loreto and beyond. According to Miryam Yataco, “The government has been immensely ineffective, from the state level to the regional and municipal levels...There has been a lot of corruption.” Budgeted funds did not arrive in communities. “Medical care has been extremely deficient for the general population, and much more so for Indigenous Peoples...The Amazonian Peoples have been treated as if they’re not citizens with rights. There is no support, period.” Apu Ronald implores the global community to take the Shipibo Konibo into account if a vaccine is developed. “We’re the most hit by this, people who have suffered so much. .. we need vaccines, all people of all ages.”
“Not a single policy was culturally appropriate”
Government responses like the quarantine did reach Indigenous communities, yet the impact was further endangerment, due to its “incompatib[ility] with the daily lives of Indigenous Peoples,” Wendy Pineda Ortiz says.“Of course, for those of us living in cities, yes, they were relevant measures. In the case of the communities, if you tell them that within 24 hours, you can’t move around anymore, and they’re often three or four days from key supply locations, they didn’t have the chance to get supplies, staples like rice, oil…” When products were available locally, prices were inaccessible. “For communities who travel by river frequently, one of the quarantine requirements meant that they had to spend a day traveling on the river, the next day hide in a community, and continue traveling the day after that.” Meanwhile, quarantine was declared with so little advance notice that hundreds of Indigenous families who were away from their villages doing errands or working in cities had no time to get home and were stuck, without any support network. The government provided some food, but, as Wendy describes, “a very small percentage [of Indigenous Peoples] received support...I don’t think there was a single [COVID-19] policy that was culturally appropriate or thought out based on the communities.” State budgets continue to ignore Indigenous Peoples’ needs. On the other hand, Miryam Yataco describes “an exodus” of Indigenous Peoples from Lima and other cities in the weeks following the onset of the pandemic. Lost jobs and no savings meant people could spend a week walking to leave the cities where they were stranded, often with children. Quoting Shipibo leader Lizardo Cauper of the Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (Interethnic Assocation for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest), Miryam points out that half a year into the pandemic, “there isn’t, hasn’t been, and doesn’t appear there is any intention of creating an intercultural health policy.”
“We don’t have any idea yet of the psychological impact”
Physical illness is not the only way in which COVID-19 is impacting Indigenous communities in Peru. The mental health impacts are real. Miryam Yataco points out, “This is a very racist environment; no one seems to be considering that the Shipibo could fall into depression, that they could fall in deep grief...We do not have a clear idea yet of the psychological impact the pandemic effect is having on Indigenous communities at the human level. For example, the Shipibo, the Awajún, will be left emotionally debilitated.” Wendy Pineda Ortiz shares communities’ concerns about not only individual impacts, but collective impacts on Indigenous Peoples as a whole. She describes a phone call with community members and leaders in communities represented by the Organización Regional de los Pueblos Indígenas del Amazonía Oriente ( Eastern Amazon Indigenous Peoples’ Regional Organization) in which “they told us that [in addition to data on physical impacts], they also want to capture data on fear...They said it’s very important as a lesson learned for other Indigenous Peoples who haven’t yet suffered COVID: they will be scared but don’t have to let it paralyze them because that impedes them from fighting against COVID…They all agreed that they would have preferred not to have that fear, which paralyzed them at the beginning of COVID, which kept them from beginning to treat their families and the sick with natural medicine and their knowledge of the forest. There would have been less impact, or fewer dead, if they’d had less fear and more confidence, from the beginning, in the care they could have given to the sick with forest products.”
Quichua, Maijuna, Bora, and Ticuna Indigenous Peoples are currently building a survey in collaboration with the Rainforest Foundation, which will be conducted house to house by community members who are specialists in Indigenous health, to create reports for each community. The reports will be based on local Indigenous values and priorities, featuring not only individual health data, but also community-level data and collective data for the Indigenous nations. Other local community projects in Indigenous communities involve banner campaigns with accurate COVID-19 data and lodging houses, funded by community members, to quarantine returning community members and keep the communities safe.
Exclusion and abandonment of Indigenous Peoples from consideration and access to services is not new and is not accidental. It is a “structural issue,” Miryam Yataco tells us. “There has always been marginalization, exclusion, racism, in special against Amazonian Peoples. And the pandemic just strips it bare, brings the immense inequities and inequalities out into the light.” Limited access to health services, food and water insecurity, and impoverishment by the dominant economy are among the preexisting conditions that make Indigenous communities more vulnerable. All told, approximately 20,000 Indigenous people in the Amazon were reported to have COVID-19 as of June 3, yet due to insufficient data collection, it is likely many more have been affected.
Miryam’s June 2020 article written in collaboration with Yuchi scholar Dr. Daniel R. Wildcat enumerates COVID-19’s impact on specific communities and individuals. This is an effort toward Miryam’s goal to demand, as she tells Cultural Survival, “that these stories would not remain anonymous.” While Indigenous communities are demanding to be counted in official statistics, numeric data cannot account for the quality of the impacts, especially when it comes to loss of elders. “‘This pandemic is taking away our wise men,’ Zebelio Kayap, the Indigenous leader of the Organization of Border Communities of Cenepa, says.” Miryam calls for “lists with first and last names in order to pay homage because this is an immense grief....These have been, and are, true tragedies for families, which should count as much as the general, non-Indigenous population.”
While COVID-19 demands attention, “predation of the forests” continues
While the government has abandoned communities with regards to needed medical care and resources, communities continue to be invaded and exploited by extractive industries. Miryam Yataco describes how companies have continued signing contracts and entering Indigenous territories. In one egregious example, oil company Frontera Energy has attempted to coerce Quechua, Kichwa, and Achuar communities to consent to its oil drilling projects, which they have fought against for decades, in exchange for access to oxygen tanks to treat COVID-19 patients. The company is implicated in over 80 oil spills in the last five years. This act of coercion and violation of Indigenous Peoples’ right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent is amplified by the inhumanity of denying lifesaving treatment to people otherwise unable to access care. Moreover, not only are companies taking advantage of the situation to further their economic interests; they are bringing COVID-19 to previously unaffected zones, such as in the case of the Yanomami in the Brazilian Amazon, who have been infected via illegal gold mining.
Similarly, Apu Ronald Suarez describes worsened “predation of the forests” by narcotraffickers along the Ucayali River bank, who are not only causing environmental destruction but are poaching children, who leave the community to find employment as harvesters. He says, “We have always wanted to confront them, but we find ourselves at a disadvantage because the traffickers are well-armed and we have nothing...This is why we’ve asked the government to help us. But we also want to organize ourselves to be able to confront the situation with Indigenous guards. These need to be the people who protect our territory in the face of the government’s ineffectiveness.”
Cultural Survival is in solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of Peru. We join over a hundred other organizations in urging the Government of Peru to provide them with the comprehensive care necessary to safeguard their rights and demand that the Peruvian government take immediate action to provide Indigenous communities with culturally appropriate medical supplies, resources, and attention according to each community’s stated needs. Cultural Survival continues to map COVID cases and human rights violations during the pandemic in Indigenous communities around the world, including several communities in Peru. Though not exhaustive, the map has documented COVID cases among 210 Indigenous Peoples in 26 countries. View the map and contribute stories from your community.
*The medicinal plant information is shared with the explicit consent of the interviewee and his colleagues, after they were informed as to how the information would be published and given the opportunity to choose if anything should not be published.
Photos courtesy of Roger Mondaluisa Sinuiri.