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Indigenous communities around the globe are closing borders in an effort to avoid a potentially devastating coronavirus outbreak in their territories.

Without medical services, many indigenous communities in remote areas have already taken steps to isolate themselves. But this brings fears that food insecurity could be exacerbated in vulnerable communities who maintain immune system health through diet.

Tzamarenda Estalin, community president of the Shuar Tawasap community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, tells SciDev.Net there are coronavirus cases in the town of Palora, just 10 kilometres from his settlement.

“There are hospitals in some communities like my town, but in most places, especially in Mindanao, this is not the case – keeping their immunity strong by ensuring food security is what they do.”

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

“We are at the very edge of the pandemic, so we decided to close our community to protect it,” Estalin says. “We don't have our own clinics, we don't have our own doctors.”

Ecuador was one of the first countries in Latin America to be hit by coronavirus, with nearly 2000 cases and 62 deaths to date.

He says indigenous communities in the region are vulnerable.

“If a community gets infected, no one will save us,” Estalin says. “At least, we have our knowledge of traditional plants and medicines. We are using ‘ajo de monte’ [bush garlic], we are using ginger, we are using other plants that can clean our throats."

In Africa, the Maasai indigenous groups of southern Kenya are unable to seal borders or rely on food security within their communities.

Kimaren ole Riamit, a Maasai and Indigenous Livelihoods Enhancement Partners (ILEPA) executive director, says the food system of the pastoralist Maasai community is based on subsistence.

“While the middle class of Kenyan society are on a frenzy stockpiling food in anticipation of shortages, the pastoralist local communities are devoid of such luxury,” he says. “It’s anticipated as the COVID-19 scourge bites deeper, the local communities’ access to carbohydrates, and vegetables in particular, will be highly compromised.”

Riamit says the communities are promoting more stringent hygiene practices within their communal culture and have indefinitely cancelled coming-of-age-ceremonies and other cultural traditions.

Indigenous communities in the Philippines have experienced their first coronavirus death. The Philippines has about 2000 known COVID-19 cases.

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, a Kankana-ey-Igorot person from the Philippines and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, tells SciDev.Net many indigenous peoples, such as those in her region of Mountain Province, practice traditional systems of locking down their communities when epidemics occur.

Members of the Dayak Bulusu Community
Members of the Dayak Bulusu Community in Bulungan, North Kalimantan, Indonesia perform the Nymaba Puru Lancang ritual, calling on the ancestors for protection from disease and disaster. This is traditionally only done only in severe circumstances.
Indigenous Peoples' Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN)

“This is called ‘ubaya’ in my town,” she says. “There are no cases of COVID-19 in these communities which declared ubaya.”

“There are hospitals in some communities like my town, but in most places, especially in Mindanao, this is not the case – keeping their immunity strong by ensuring food security is what they do.”

Tauli-Corpuz says some communities have greater food insecurity than others.

“In Mindoro, the Mangyans are complaining that the dominant populations get four kilos of rice per family, while the Mangyan get two,” she says.

But, Tauli-Corpuz says, in many other communities, traditional food-reserve sharing still exists. “There are other municipalities in my province, like Sadanga, who refused the government food packages because they do not need these and they told the government to give these to those more in need,” she says.

“They said they are producing enough and if the rice runs out they can ask the richer members to open their rice granaries to provide for those whose rice ran out.”

Tauli-Corpuz says many indigenous communities around the world are also locking down, as they are highly vulnerable.

“Those who are self-governing are in better situations, like those in Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia,” she says, adding that indigenous peoples require protection from abuse and for their human rights – such as health care and livelihood development, and the right to practice their traditions in response to epidemics – to be respected.