Indigenous communities are standing on the frontlines of COVID-19 and the climate crisis

Today, COVID-19 has displaced climate change as the most pressing global concern for world leaders.

Today, COVID-19 has displaced climate change as the most pressing global concern for world leaders. Despite the fact that scientists and activists have warned about accelerating temperature rise for decades, climate change has failed to achieve the same level of urgency when compared to the response to coronavirus. Yet, these dual crises are more closely linked than one might think.

The loss of wilderness and biodiversity caused by rampant deforestation in places like the Amazon not only account for heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions that are pushing us toward a climate tipping point, but they are also linked to the emergence of new and deadly pathogens like the coronavirus because habitat destruction forces disease-carrying wild animals closer to humans. 

In addition to the accelerating destruction of nature, we have also experienced a global reckoning about the ways that health and ecological crises disproportionately impact the poor, people of color and Indigenous peoples, who, due to hundreds of years of colonization, displacement, and environmental racism, are under-resourced and have less access to means of confronting escalating threats.

All of this amounts to a fork in the road: We can either double down on the unjust and unsustainable systems that brought us into the simultaneous crises of climate change and COVID-19, or, as our awareness grows, we can learn and listen to those most impacted, and work to change the policies and systems that got us here.

In the face of this extraordinary difficult moment, Indigenous Communities continue to preserve their lives and lands. The Waorani people of Ecuador are one of hundreds of Indigenous nations across the Amazon defending nearly one million square miles of primary forest or roughly 35 percent of the entire Amazon basin (worldwide, Indigenous peoples make up less than 5 percent of the global population, yet they inhabit and protect 80 percent of the most biodiverse regions like the Amazon). Despite the critical role Indigenous peoples play in protecting the planet and all of us from the effects of rainforest destruction, their cultural and physical survival is at heightened risk.

Intensified by ongoing oil operations and gross state incompetence, COVID-19 spread rapidly into Indigenous territories in the Amazon. With little information or assistance from local governments, Indigenous peoples filled the vacuum by taking aggressive measures to reduce disease exposure throughout their territories, as well as provide immediate care and critical information in culturally appropriate ways. While Indigenous leaders have doggedly worked over the last several months to protect their people from the immediate threat of the pandemic, such as by using traditional medicine from the rainforest to heal their sick, they also have kept an eye on the larger picture.  

Throughout this health crisis, rapacious extraction on Indigenous lands continues apace, fueled by governments that routinely fail to recognize the rights of Indigenous communities. However, Indigenous peoples are fighting back. In the upper Amazon, Indigenous leaders have successfully won protections for the world’s largest carbon sink: “the Lungs of the Earth” and tribes such as the Waorani and Sinangoe, continue to partner with organizations like Amazon Frontlines to fight for moratoria on extraction, challenge rights violations, enhance resilience in their communities and build global alliances that will endure beyond the current outbreak.

Despite these wins, Indigenous leaders are preparing for the governments of the region to further pursue destructive economic policies at breakneck speed under the guise of crisis recovery from COVID-19. Right now, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is seizing the crisis to dismantle hard-won protections for environmental reserves, purge top environmental officials, and usher in new rules that could legalize land grabbing, mining, oil-drilling and other destructive activities in protected forests and Indigenous reserves. 

In Ecuador, meanwhile, President Lenin Moreno and Energy Minister Jose Augusto have openly declared their intention to accelerate mining and oil into the Amazon as the center of their post-COVID “economic recovery.” Augusto went so far as to say that the country was “sitting on Ferraris.” The results so far have been nothing short of disastrous: On April 7, Ecuador suffered its largest oil spill in decades, contaminating water and food resources for Indigenous and other communities. 

These disastrous policies are an assault on all of us. Indeed, along with the moral and legal imperative to stand with Indigenous peoples, it is also in our “selfish” interest to support their work to ensure a livable planet for all peoples. The Amazon is the planet’s largest absorber of carbon, sequestering 5 percent of greenhouse gases annually, even as it contains and recycles much of Mother Earth’s fresh water. The Amazon biome, moreover, is home to 10 percent of the world’s diverse species. 

How these assaults are defended against and resolved are especially urgent in the Amazon, where many Indigenous cultures are within one generation of extinction. The unique vantage of Indigenous cultures is more than the source of their strength — it points the way out of the current crises and towards new and sustainable models of development and relationships with the earth. 

Indigenous peoples have a special role to play in challenging and transforming systems and structures that have caused immense human suffering and environmental damage. They are the world’s first line of defense against deforestation and runaway climate change. But that role will only be possible if they are supported to preserve their cultures and protect the forests on which those cultures depend. 

At the same time, global allies of Indigenous peoples will be confronted with their own struggles closer to home – struggles that must also involve a fundamental questioning of a flailing economic system and its prospects. However, by working to fix long-term problems and mobilizing quickly in times of crisis, Indigenous peoples are moving us all closer to the world we want. We must learn from them as we all work to create a healthier, more just and equitable future for all.

Together, with Indigenous peoples like the Waorani and Sinangoe at the forefront, we must shine a light on the current assault on the Amazon and biodiversity at large while simultaneously committing to developing and implementing a transformational, green recovery. Only through radical global awareness and solidarity – centered on Indigenous leadership and solutions – can we overcome the twin challenges of COVID-19 and the climate crisis that we all face on planet earth, our one shared home. 

Nemonte Nenquimo is cofounder of the Indigenous-led nonprofit organization Ceibo Alliance, the first female president of the Waorani organization of Pastaza province and one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Julia Jackson is the founder of, a philanthropic initiative that convenes scientists, policymakers, investors, executives, activists and front-line organizations to elevate solutions that create systemic change in order to stay below 1.5˚C in global temperature rise and ensure a livable planet.

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