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El Comercio is a leading daily based in Quito, Ecuador. Founded in 1906, the newspaper has a center-right editorial stance.
Two men of an indigenous family seen wearing face masks for protection against the coronavirus in Manaus, Brazil.

Indigenous People: Isolated And Exposed To Coronavirus

The novel coronavirus currently sweeping the globe can, of course, infect any of us. But it poses particular dangers for indigenous and forest-dwelling communities attempting to live isolated from the modern world, and who in some extreme cases fear for their very survival.

History is littered with tragic episodes of exposed communities decimated by imported disease. It's paramount, therefore, that governments make every effort to prevent a repeat. But where official action is missing, fundraising and volunteer workers have stepped in to fill the void and help save not only lives, but also the old-world know-how and intimate connection to local ecosystems that such native groups represent.

Here are some examples from around the world of measures being taken to protect indigenous communities from the pandemic:

Advocates in Brazil have been warning of an impending health crisis since the deaths last month of two Amazon-area indigenous people. Though there has been federal policy barring outsiders from entering indigenous territories since 1987 — mostly to protect the tribes from contact with communicable diseases against which they have no immunological defense — many gold prospectors continue to enter and mine illegally.

Tribal leaders and activists suspect this is how the coronavirus entered their communities. Over the course of one month, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Basin (COICA) estimates that at least 180 of the 600 indigenous tribes of the Amazon basin have been infected by the coronavirus, and that 33 people have died.

COICA is also leading the Amazon Emergency Fund, intended to supply the people with food, medicine and basic protective equipment, which they say regional governments failed to supply. "We cannot wait any longer for our governments... We are in danger of extinction," says José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, general coordinator of COICA and a member of the Wakuenai Kurripaco people of Venezuela.

There is serious concern too about the spread of disease among indigenous groups in Colombia. The far-southern Amazonas region went from having zero confirmed cases to 230 in less than two weeks, and is now "by far the region with the most coronavirus cases and deaths per capita in the country," the Colombian daily El Tiempo reports.

In Ecuador, near the Peruvian border, another indigenous community — the Siekopai nation — are fleeing to the Amazon rainforest after a rise in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths, reports Al Jazeera. In an attempt to avoid infection, dozens of children and elderly Siekopai set off on canoes for Lagartococha, a large Ecuadoran wetland in the heart of the Amazon, while those who stayed behind are turning to homeopathic remedies to try to cope with the illness.

The nation of fewer than 750 people fears for its very survival following the deaths of two elders, the Ecuadoran daily El Comercio reports. "When our people were taken to medical centers, they were told it was just the flu, tonsillitis, pneumonia. They didn't even test them for COVID-19," said Justino Piaguaje, the president of the community.

After the first deaths, Piaguaje and other Siekopai leaders asked the Ecuadoran government to fence-off the community and test inhabitants but received no response.

Indigenous people living in the Amazon basin from nine different countries have joined together to create the Amazon Emergency Fund, hoping to raise $3 million in the next two weeks and $5 million throughout the month to protect the 3 million rainforest inhabitants, whose vulnerability to the novel coronavirus in compounded by lack of modern health care.

The call for an emergency fund for the Amazon people was preceded by an open letter to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro urging him to protect the country's indigenous population or risk ethnocide. The document was signed by dozens of international artists, musicians, actors, writers and scientists.

Indigenous women in Brazil wearing face masks with the inscription ""Indigenous life is important" — Photo: Lucas Silva/DPA/ZUMA

"This pandemic is not only a humanitarian emergency, it is also an environmental emergency," says Suzanne Pelletier, executive director of the foundation. "Indigenous people across the Amazon are the last line of defense against forest destruction and our best hope of mitigating climate change."

In India, meanwhile, many forest-dwelling tribal groups, also known as Scheduled Tribes, find themselves in a state of disarray with their movements restricted, yet also cut-off from the rest of the world. The news site The Wirereports that the Indian government has restricted tribal movement through the forest, which many rely on to sustain themselves through minor produce collection of things like honey, gum, bamboo, beedi leaves, broomstick grass, tamarind and Indian gooseberries, which they also sell for profit.

Groups like the Koya Tribe, which inhabits the foothills in the north of the Eastern Ghats in Andhra Pradesh, are now becoming reliant on government agencies and even a few compassionate law enforcement officials to help them get their staple foods like rice as their incomes are being decimated. Many tribes also live on settlements on the borders of what have been declared tiger reserves. Following news that tigers could also be infected by the coronavirus, the National Tiger Conservation Authority banned all human movement inside all 50 tiger reserves, leaving tribes like the Kani effectively trapped and cut-off, now completely reliant on the forest department for rations.

On the other side of the planet, in the UnitedStates, Native Americans living in the Navajo Nation, which spans portions of the Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, are facing unique challenges to their way of life as coronavirus takes hold. While the Navajo Nation has the third-highest infection rate per capita of any region in the U.S., social distancing and staying away from the elderly aren't exactly options for most Navajo people. Many extended families live under the same roof, and many also have to travel long distances to go to one of the 13 full-service grocery stores that serve a population of about 174,000 residents.

One third of reservation residents, furthermore, don't have access to running water or stable health care. And compared to parts of the reservation in other states, the Navajo Nation in Utah receives little help from the state government.

"A lot of the times, the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation kinda has to fend for itself," says Pete Sands, who coordinates a food delivery program for the Utah portion of the tribal lands. "That's the reason why I started my program."

Sands also works with the Utah Navajo Health System (UNHS), a nonprofit that was started in 2000 and offers dental and medical care to rural Navajo communities. Together, the UNHS, Sands' program and a group of volunteers are at the forefront of the response to the pandemic for Navajo people in Utah, providing staples like food, water, detergent and more to at-risk people and elders with their delivery program.

Clashes in Caracas on Jan. 23
Irene Caselli

Venezuela Crisis Unleashes Old And New Fears In Latin America

The sudden political crisis in Venezuela has major reverberations across Latin America and the world. Both old and new dividing lines in the region have emerged since Juan Guaidó, the leader of Venezuela's National Assembly, declared himself the country's acting president in defiance of Nicolás Maduro, who has been ruling the country since 2013.

In a continent where the United States backed coups in the 1960s and 1970s, Donald Trump's lightning-fast endorsement of Guaidó via Twitter was not taken lightly. Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua, which together with China, Russia, Turkey and Iran quickly supported Maduro, see the Maduro administration as the only possible ally in the region at a time when Latin America is moving away from 21st-century socialism.

Beyond the halls of diplomacy is the pressing issue of refugees.

On the other side, backing Guaidó, stand most of the other Latin American countries. In the middle are Uruguay and Mexico, the latter led by left-leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who is trying to distance himself from his predecessors; they have not recognized Guaidó, but are calling for dialogue.

Beyond the halls of diplomacy is the pressing issue of refugees. According to the UN Refugee Agency, some 3 milllion Venezuelans have left the country in the face of a severe economic crisis. Most have relocated to neighboring countries: Colombia is the top recipient with one million migrants and Brazil's northern regions are also struggling to integrate the fleeing Venezuelans. A strong stance against Maduro's government would help Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Iván Duque in Colombia show their electoral basis that they are doing their utmost to address the refugee issue.

These dividing lines are reflected in the front pages of newspapers around the region.

Most left-leaning media have referred to Guaidó"s declaration of power, and its subsequent approval from Trump and Latin American leaders, as an attempted coup in Venezuela.

"Dialogue is the way forward, not intervention," according to Pagina12 in Argentina.

"Venezuela is not alone, mobilized people face a coup," read the title of Cambio, a state-funded newspaper in Bolivia, using one of President Evo Morales's tweets on the front page.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the Chilean business magazine AméricaEconomía endorsed Guaidó in an editorial: "All this sounds reasonable if you think about the tainted 2018 presidential election that gave Maduro a second presidential term of six years, which he has just begun. And it sounds more than reasonable if you think about everything that the Venezuelan people have had to suffer and continue to suffer, plunged into a humanitarian crisis of food and medicine shortages that has lasted more than two years."

In Colombia, El Espectador referred to Maduro as a dictator and usurper, backing Guaidó"s actions. "Venezuela took a historic step for the constitutional return to the democratic path," said the Bogota daily in an editorial.

Uruguayan papers have been cautious, reflecting the government's neutral stance. "A rift that is difficult to overcome," was one El Observador headline, highlighting Maduro's interest in Uruguay's proposal for dialogue.

Whatever happens next, it's clear that the rest of the continent will be watching closely. This is best summarized by Chilean-Brazilian philosopher Vladimir Safatle in his piece for Brazil's Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper: "Right now, Venezuela is on the verge of civil war or international intervention. Far from being merely the result of its internal conflicts, the dramatic destiny of this oil-exporting country acts as a sort of magnifying glass for the difficult situations of Latin American politics. Venezuela has become a kind of ghost in which everyone sees their fears and desires."

The rest of the continent will be watching closely.

"In fact, it clearly exposes the collapse of both a certain experience of the left on the continent and its counterparts on the right," Safatle writes.

He concludes with a grim warning: "The chances of a real catastrophe of unpredictable proportions are enormous. The worst of them would undoubtedly be the resurgence of open American imperialist actions."

Dinghy headed to a Galapagos island
Giacomo Tognini

Cocaine In Galápagos? Cartels Use Ecuador As A Logistics Hub

QUITO — Stashes of cocaine kept in boats and dinghies in the remote Galápagos Islands. Dozens of operatives transporting narcotics on rivers across the border into Colombia. Over the past three years, powerful Mexican drug cartels have systematically moved supplies and operations into Ecuador.

According to Quito-based daily El Comercio, at least four Mexican cartels have operated relatively freely in this South American country, sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, for several years, developing it into a regional logistics hub.

A report released this year by the Mexican Interior Ministry shows a vast network of financiers, security operatives, and traffickers employed by Mexican cartels to conduct their business in Ecuador. The Sinaloa Cartel, formerly led by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, now imprisoned, was the first cartel to establish roots in the country. They were soon followed by the Zetas, Familia Michoacana, and the Gulf cartel, all among the most powerful criminal organizations in Mexico.

We are used as a hub for organizing and moving drug shipments.

Cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine are the most widely trafficked drugs, and security agents have discovered a supply chain that links various points throughout the country. Narcotics are moved in boats from the Galápagos Islands to ports along the coastline, including Guayaquil, the country's largest city, before being moved in barges along Ecuador's many rivers to the border with Colombia. Once across the border, Mexican traffickers rely on their strong links to cartels in Colombia, where the transshipment continues.

Unlike its neighbors, Ecuador is not an important producer of coca leaf, from which cocaine is refined and produced. The country instead acts as a logistics center. "We aren't a cocaine producing country, we are used as a hub for organizing and moving drug shipments," Ecuador's national police chief Ramiro Montilla told El Comercio.

Ecuadorian police and counternarcotics forces have cracked down on the cartels, arresting dozens of operatives and reinforcing controls on key rivers in two provinces. But the authorities say the groups have become more brazen in their operations in recent years. In 2015, seven Mexicans were arrested on a small northern airstrip as they attempted to fly a small plane loaded with half a ton of cocaine to the United States.