When, in 2020, the Ecuadorian authorities refused to help the people of the Secoya tribe, they turned to the place that had always waited for them: the forest.
The canoes moved out into the Aguarico River at dawn. They had around 160 kilometres to go, fortunately downstream. The members of the Secoya tribe were headed for the floodplains of Lagarto Cocha – a sacred place from which their forbears had been driven out 80 years ago after the Peruvian-Ecuadorian war. The wetlands on which the tribe had lived for centuries were then classified by the Peruvian government as a national park and for many years were protected by border guards. Only recently were the Indigenous inhabitants able to visit them again.
In spring 2020, the Secoya made their way there for help. One of the canoes held, among other people, the herbalist Alfredo Payaguaje and community president Justino Piaguaje. They set off to find the leaves, roots and bark that Alfredo could use as medicine for COVID-19.
At the start of the pandemic, the Secoya were counting on the coronavirus bypassing them; that it would stop at the borders of the jungle. But by April 2020, it was clear this hadn’t happened. The first fatal victim was one of the elders: a weaver and the tribal doctor. The second to die was the teacher who had been working to protect their tribal traditions for years. No-one knows who was the first of the Secoya to become infected, nor how. The suspicion is that a Dutch tourist brought in the disease when he wanted to see with his own eyes the lives of the Indigenous inhabitants in the reservation. Either that, or it had arrived with settlers who had come to visit earlier, for the tribe’s anniversary celebrations. The territory of the Secoya today is squeezed between the land of oil corporations and industrial-scale palm-oil plantations. “We are surrounded by colonizers, which is why, although we did whatever we could, the coronavirus reached our lands,” said Justino Piaguaje in a film made for The New Yorker.
The Secoya are not the only tribal community in Ecuador to be touched by the pandemic. Tiyua Uyunkar, head of another Amazon community, the Achuar, wrote in in The Guardian about their powerlessness in the face of the coronavirus, but also against the government-backed corporations. He suspects that the first coronavirus patients from his tribe were infected by lumberjacks who were logging illegally. The virus has also spread among the Huaorani, living in the tropical rainforest in eastern Ecuador, and among the Kofan people, who live on the border of Ecuador and Columbia.
After two of his tribespeople died, Justino turned to the government for help. He asked for tests and isolation for the Indigenous people, requesting deliveries of medicines and food, but got no reply. In spring of last year, during the height of the crisis – when little was known about the coronavirus and when Ecuador’s hospitals were already unable to admit the numbers of ill and dying – the drilling platforms were still working away. Each day more trees were chopped down, lorries piling along the roads. By the end of April, the next dozen Secoya were showing symptoms of COVID-19.
A living library
When Spanish Jesuit missionaries first reached the Amazon rainforest in the 17th century, there were some 30,000 people in the Secoya tribe. They were living on the borderlands between today’s Peru and Ecuador, along the Putumayo, Aguarico and Napo rivers. They lived in multi-family, spacious maloca (long houses), built of wood, leaves and grasses. The teacher who died of COVID-19 in April 2020, was the only one who knew well the principles of building this type of dwelling; in recent years, he had passed on this knowledge to the young activists working for the protection of the tribe’s culture.
Previously unknown viruses came into the rainforest along with the Europeans. The Secoya community was thinned out by successive diseases: hepatitis B, measles and influenza. The next plagues arrived in the 20th century: the plunder of rubber, poaching and, last and worst of all, oil. When oil deposits were discovered in the Amazon rainforest in the 1960s, logging began on a massive scale. The only thing that currently limits the development of the industry is the lack of roads – but they are appearing ever faster, often on tribal territories.
Today, the Ecuadorian Secoya community comprises less than 750 people. The untimely death of Indigenous people is an unimaginable loss, because with each of them an irreplaceable part of the traditional knowledge and culture dies, too. Each elder is a living library and knowledge is passed on verbally within the tribe. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens the complete extinction of those Indian communities. Yet even though the authorities know this very well – not only have the Indigenous peoples raised the alarm, but also representatives of international human rights organizations – no protection programme has been introduced.
The Secoya, therefore, decided to shield themselves from the virus in the place where they had always felt safe: deep in the Amazon jungle. They regard the black wetlands of Lagarto Cocha as a sacred meeting place for spirits and people. Here, for generations, shaman rituals took place, using the traditional, hallucinogenic yagé infusion. Since being allowed to visit Lagarto Cocha again, the Secoya have canoed there each August (the month believed by the Secoya to be auspicious) to take part in ritual ceremonies and to gather medicinal plants. Last year, however, they could not wait until August. According to the tribe’s doctor, Alfredo Payaguaje, only in the area of Lagarto Cocha can one find the trees and plants necessary to make a drink that could ease COVID-19 symptoms and strengthen immunity.
In the Secoya tribe, herbal knowledge has been handed down from generation to generation and covers as many as 1000 species of plants. Developed over centuries, it has found its purpose during the pandemic. “With Alfredo, we started to look at this disease,” said Justino Piaguaje in the film for The New Yorker. “The coronavirus infection produces many different symptoms. We decided to look for plants that would soothe them. We gathered knowledge from many of our people and what we discovered we put together.”
Less than six months since the trip to Lagarto Cocha, Jimmy Piaguaje, a young activist working for Secoya culture, (most of the tribal community has the Piaguaje or Payaguaje surname), gave an interview to the Writers Rebel portal. He revealed that the majority of the members of his community who had survived coronavirus infection had been treated with herbal infusions. Alfredo’s medicine, although prepared in the middle of the forest, packed enough punch to fight the infection effectively. “The pandemic has meant that we appreciate the knowledge amassed by our ancestors once again. Although we have experienced many injustices, displacements, slavery, and marginalization, we have never cut ourselves off from our roots,” said Jimmy.
The Secoya community has survived the first year of the pandemic. It has planted new plants that can be used in case of further waves of the pandemic. When it turned out that the medicinal infusion worked, it was shared with other Indigenous tribes of the Amazon rainforest, including, among others, the even smaller and more greatly threatened Sion tribe, who also live in the upper reaches of the Aguarico river. “The pandemic is a time for unity and solidarity. Here is our gift to you, so that you may continue to protect yourselves effectively,” said Justino, as he handed over canisters of the infusion.
Guardians of the forest
Nobody admits publicly that if the coronavirus pandemic had weakened the Indigenous peoples of the rainforest even more, the oil companies and corporations planting palm oil forests would have an easier time of it. Before the pandemic, it was the Indigenous peoples that slowed or even blocked the construction of new roads through the rainforest. According to a report by the United Nations published in early 2021, the Latin American Indigenous peoples are the best guardians of nature in the Amazon. Deforestation rates on lands where they live are as much as half the rates elsewhere.
The report also shows one other thing: Amazon tribes are protecting us all against pandemics, such as this latest one. For today, no-one is in any doubt that the majority of new diseases in the world are related to our excessive interference in the natural world.
Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz
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