Indigenous America and the Pandemic Era: Land Rights

This article is the second in a three part series on the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples across the Americas during the COVID-19 era. Read the first part here, and the third part here

Land Rights

While Indigenous populations themselves are being decimated by the coronavirus, several government and business groups are using the pandemic as an excuse to make land grabs and further exploit resources on Indigenous land. In Brazil, as soon as the lockdown was lifted, 20,000 gold miners rushed into Yanomami tribal territory. Apart from the two Indigenous activists murdered, they are spreading Covid. “If the miners reach them, they could wipe them out because no one can see what’s happening” explains shaman Davi Yanomami, “the Indigenous people are the protectors of Earth’s lungs.” 

The issue of land protection and Indigenous peoples can also be seen across Central America. In Guatemala, several groups have collided for power in the country’s north. In contrast to Guatemala’s highly populated southern mountain region, much of the northern half of the country is located within the Reserva Biosfera Maya, or the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. This conservation area with several national parks is locally known as the Mayan Heartland, as it is largely inhabited by the Indigenous Mayan people. The longtime system of conservation in place in this area includes the government-funded ‘concessions’ program. Through this program, Indigenous Mayans are allowed to work the land and log sustainably- as they have been doing for hundreds of years. 

Map of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve

However, since most northern border-crossings with Mexico were forced to close due to the pandemic, drug cartels have shifted their routes through the jungle. In the process, they are destroying large swaths of hastily cleared land for runways and leaving behind debris, sometimes the jets themselves. In response to this, US American archaeologist Richard Hansen has proposed privatizing the Mayan ruins of El Mirador for a “sustainable tourism” resort which would supposedly drive in foreign development and drive out the cartels, as well as the concessions program. His proposal has even gotten the attention of some congressmen, who have penned a bill which would provide him with federal funding. Narco-deforestation nor US American colonization of Inidgenous lands is not the solution here. If US Americans like Richard Hansen want real conservation, they would push for funding for the concessions, supporting the people who have successfully protected the Guatemalan rainforest for centuries; if the US government supported this program directly, then the Guatemalan government could better maintain a presence in this region, both supporting the Indigenous inhabitants and keeping narcotrafficking off Indigenous land. 

In neighboring Honduras, the land of the Garifuna is also under threat. The Garifuna are an Afro-Indigenous community who live along the coast of Honduras. At first, the Garifuna returned to tradition to weather the pandemic: they relied on community-made masks, drank traditional herbal immunity teas, conducted their own census, and the youth took up traditional methods farming and fishing to feed their community. All that changed in mid-July, when five Garifuna leaders were kidnapped by the military police, the only group allowed to break the country’s strict lockdown. Ever since the US-backed coup in 2009, the Honduran government has been hostile towards the Garifuna and other Indigenous groups. Their coastal territory has long been the envy of many foreign and domestic development investors and the government has made many attempts to squeeze the Garifuna off their land, such as strict regulation of what can be grown on their land. The government is now using the pandemic to finally realize their goal of ridding the coast of the Garifuna. After the leaders were kidnapped, any organized response was crushed with the excuse of controlling the virus, even though funding for medical response was never used near Garifuna communities, they are barred from travelling into cities for medical care, and the tests they do often take weeks to give responses. In a talk for Massachusetts Peace Action, Garifuna organizer Omar Suazo equated that “a loss of land is the loss of our culture… little by little we are disappearing.” 

Map of the Garifuna people in Central America

In Guatemala and Honduras, the COVID era has brought the acceleration of outside invaders into Indigenous land. When the Indigenous people try to defend their land, they are blocked by the double standard of containing the virus, while militaries, drug traffickers, and big business roam free. In 2020, foreign lead development of Indigenous land, whether it be of Mayan ruins or Garifuna beaches, is colonization. Moreover, Indigenous land is not a no-man’s land open to narcotrafficking and neglected by the state; Indigenous communities must be provided the resources needed to solve the problems brought onto them by outside groups. While some governments actively try to subvert Indigenous sovereignty, it is still not enough for governments to do nothing to protect their sovereignty, because when governments stand idly by it opens the door to other settler intruders. 

With all of the challenges Indigenous people face in the wake of the Coronavirus, many are standing up and demanding change. Read more about that here, and read about demographic challenges here.