Protecting our partners in a pandemic

Posted on 14 August 2020

How will we continue our supportive work when we can’t safely meet with participants in person?
By Irene de la Rosa, Pia Escobar Gutiérrez, and Verónica Tellez Oliveros, WWF-Colombia

The Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, who have protected the forests of this important region of the planet through their traditional practices and customs for generations, now face one of the greatest threats in recent times: the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It has been evident since colonization that the common flu is lethal for these communities, who, due to their way of life, have not been exposed to this sort of disease. Today COVID-19 is a threat to all of humanity but even more so to these communities who still live in remote environments and whose territories have very precarious conditions for accessing health services.

On June 29, the Colombian National Institute of Health reported 1,018 cases of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities and a total of 33 deaths. Of these 1,018 nationwide cases, 676 were recorded in the department of Amazonas, where there are no intensive care beds. Patients who fall gravely ill must be flown to other cities, such as Bogotá, a flight that lasts about two hours and is difficult to arrange. 

In Amazonas, the death rate is more than 63 times the national average, and Leticia, its capital, is the city with the highest number of infections per million inhabitants, according to Sinergias, a public health organization in the Colombian Amazon. The situation in these territories, which are mainly inhabited by Indigenous communities, is critical. 

In these precarious times, WWF-Colombia is committed to protecting our Indigenous partners and is working to support them despite the physical distance that now separates us.

One of the processes we have been developing at WWF-Colombia to support Indigenous peoples in the Amazon is the Capacity Building Programme on Indigenous Territorial Governance (PFGTI, for its acronym in Spanish). PFGTI seeks to strengthen the governance capabilities of Indigenous peoples within their territories. The second cohort of students began their courses in the department of Putumayo in June 2019, with 29 participants from the Kichwa, Camëntsä, Inga, Quillasinga, and Siona peoples. 

Originally, the program structure included face-to-face sessions as well as work by the students in their respective communities, but the health emergency caused by the pandemic has prevented us from holding any face-to-face meetings this year. 

So how will we continue with this supportive work when we can’t safely meet with participants in person? We are changing our approach and adapting our methodology to meet the challenges of the time presented by the pandemic to further advance the tapestry of knowledge.

We have produced a digital booklet that includes the topics we have already covered in the training program, and the second version will soon be released with the topics that we were not able to cover in person. This booklet will be sent via WhatsApp to the participants who have access to the internet, and a paper copy will soon be sent to every student, observing a biosecurity protocol that avoids the risk of disease spread.

In general, radio is the most widely used communication channel in communities without internet access and smartphones. In this regard, we have also worked on designing a new communications plan that allows us to transmit educational content through a radio program or podcast. We will include some of the topics that had already been discussed at the end of 2019 and some that were planned for 2020, which will be addressed through interviews with special guests, teachers, or experts. 

Transmitting information is one thing but interacting with students is quite another. We keep in permanent touch with PFGTI participants through the telephone and, in some cases, through WhatsApp, where we hold chats with students. Questions are asked about the topics in the booklet, audios are shared with stories of traditions and practices from the participating communities (in their own voices), and dialogue about this information is encouraged. We have also planned some virtual meetings with our invited guests to encourage the participation of as many students who can connect from their homes and territories and to generate spaces for sharing dialogue and the tapestry of knowledge.   

However, not all students have easy access to these media. We performed a study to identify those who have the possibility of accessing the internet with assistance so that we can provide them with data plans that allow them to connect and participate in these strategies for weaving knowledge and know-how from the virtual space.

The Indigenous organizations are helping to support these students as well. We are working with the leaders of OZIP, the Indigenous partner organization that is leading the development of PFGTI in Putumayo, by sending them internet connection packages, as well as some computers, to facilitate connectivity and communication from their territories.

This strategy allows us to continue with the training process without holding more workshops or face-to-face meetings with the communities and without promoting meetings or working gatherings that could put facilitators or students at risk. It may be more difficult or inconvenient, but these are ways to protect the participants from COVID-19 and support the Indigenous communities' decisions to remain in their territories and not allow any outsiders to enter. 

For now, we work from home and continue weaving, looking for ways to continue these processes while we take care of ourselves and each other. Protecting the Indigenous communities of the Amazon is something we are all committed to. 
Group session of PFGTI participants, pre-COVID-19 restrictions.
© Miller Pinta / WWF-Colombia