From Climate Change to COVID, Human Rights Issues Are Intensified in Indigenous Communities Across the U.S.

WhyHunger has been working hard to assess the situation for our allies and partners on the ground struggling to feed and care-take during the coronavirus pandemic. For the majority of our partners, COVID is clearly exposing what has been an ongoing humanitarian crisis of food insecurity in both rural and urban communities worldwide. For indigenous peoples in particular, many of the unjust structural issues that have led to poor healthcare infrastructure, resource depletion, and food insecurity are rooted in the systemic oppression of self-governing autonomous indigenous nations for hundreds of years. To make matters worse, climate change, rollbacks in environmental protection, violence, and political repression only deepen the crisis, as indigenous livelihoods are extremely dependent on the health of the local environment.

In North America, the Navajo Nation surpassed every U.S. state in Coronavirus infection rates, yet received disproportionately less funding and resources. The government response has been slow and doctors and medical support have only made their way into the community within the past few weeks. The $8 billion allocated to Native communities in the CARES act was delayed and much of it is diverted to for-profit corporations. Almost half of the allocated funds were held up until early June, when a federal judge ordered they be released.

As is the case for many other Native nations, the Navajo Nation struggles with more underlying problems which are only being heightened during the Coronavirus crisis. A 2014 study by Johns Hopkins University found that 76% of people in the Navajo nation experience food insecurity. Many homes lack running water and increasingly more people lost access to food as the Navajo Nation enforced travel restrictions to and from the reservation. The lack of infrastructure in the Navajo Nation is the result of years of broken promises by the federal government. In its treaty with the nation, the government agreed to provide funding for things like housing and healthcare but has often fallen short. “You can hear the frustration, the tone of my voice. We once again have been forgotten by our own government.”, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez tells NPR. Navajo land has been used by various extractive industries such as coal, uranium and gold mining, which has polluted wells and limited access to fresh water. This is just one example of how indigenous communities are dispossessed of their land, the resources they rely on, and are subsequently more vulnerable to the Coronavirus.

As the media is focused on the global crisis of the pandemic and racism, corporate interests continue to push governments to relax both environmental and indigenous policy regulations. In April, a leaked memo from one of the main lobby groups for Canada oil and gas, the Canada Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), urged the federal government to defer legislation concerning the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), among other important environmental regulations. UNDRIP requires governments obtain from indigenous nations “free and informed consent prior to the approval of any projects affecting their lands or territories and other resources.” As evidenced in the memo, obtained by Environmental Defence, CAPP argues such measures are necessary to support economic recovery from COVID.

Several months ago, the Wet’suwet’en First Nation received significant media coverage for their organizing efforts to keep a major pipeline from being constructed on their territory. LNG Canada is now attempting to resume construction on the pipeline.

While the Keystone XL pipeline finished construction in Canada, the rest of its 1200 mile line to Nebraska is still held up from a recent Supreme Court ruling on July 6th that excluded the XL pipeline project from proceeding without an arduous environmental review process being fulfilled (though several other pipeline projects were given the go ahead). Should the review process extend past the 2020 Election, the existence of the pipeline would be jeopardized as a Democratic win could mean a cancellation of the permits, according to a pledge made by Joe Biden.

Extractive industries, often compromising critical sources of water, are major contributors to health disparities among indigenous populations and exactly the reason tribal nations oppose pipelines – to protect and preserve clean water as a human right. Not only does this open up the possibility of pipeline workers introducing Coronavirus into indigenous territory, but also undermines the exercise of tribal sovereignty in making policies around social distancing and the closing or opening borders.

“With no assessment of the project’s harms, including links between man camps and increased violence against Indigenous women, the government fails to adequately address the social impacts of resource development and how it contributes to the risks and violence faced by Indigenous women and girls”, argues the ACLU.

In March, just as the Coronavirus crisis was heating up, the United States federal government announced it would revoke reservation status for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts. Rather than providing funding and resources for indigenous communities, it seems the federal government was set on further dispossessing the very people who fed the early settlers through their first harsh winter. Revoking the Mashpee Wampanoag land trust is not only contradictory to obligations of America’s founders, it sets a dangerous precedent in U.S. Indian Policy and opens space for further land grabs.

This is all too similar to the situation in Brazil, where there is a direct correlation between corporate interests, deforestation, wildfires, subsequent health disparities and devastating susceptibility to chronic illness and disease. “Genocide” is the word being used by Mayor of Manaus, Arthur Virgilio Neto, to sound the alarm on the Brazilian government’s failure to protect its vulnerable tribal nations.

In Mexico, over 3,000 people in Tsoltil Mayan communities of Chiapas are at risk of a famine after being forcefully displaced from their ancestral territory by paramilitary civilian groups. Several families have had their houses burned or destroyed and have been forced to take refuge in the mountains, without access to land for food cultivation. They are no longer able to harvest coffee, one of their primary sources of income throughout the year. Response from the Mexican government has been lacking. Little has been done to provide immediate assistance to those facing displacement and food insecurity or to dismantle the paramilitary groups causing the harm.

In Panama, Kuna communities are finding themselves isolated and unable to access the markets they rely on for trade. Kuna farmers are sitting on produce that they can’t sell. The state is providing people with emergency canned foods, undermining the community’s food sovereignty by flooding them with free, low quality food rather than supporting struggling local farmers.

In response to the Coronavirus pandemic, indigenous communities are coming together to provide support and resources where needed and stand up to historic and ongoing injustices. Many indigenous communities have turned to ancestral knowledge and traditions to find solutions during this difficult time.

As the Coronavirus crisis disrupts supply chains, government policies and corporate interests are denying indigenous people’s access and ownership over their own land and resources, making it difficult to put ancestral knowledge into practice. From extractive industries that pollute groundwater to revoking indigenous land trusts, systemic dispossession of indigenous communities is the root cause that’s symptoms are only being heightened through the Coronavirus Crisis.

Alex Roth