Eye on the Amazon

Oxygen for Ucayali: The Global Crises Exposed by COVID-19

Silvio Vallés. Photo credit: Municipality of Masisea

Since 2006, Amazon Watch has provided millions of dollars of flexible micro-grants through our Amazon Defenders Fund (ADF) in support of urgent and strategic priorities to our local partners in the Amazon. Historically, ADF grants have been used for grassroots organizing for indigenous assemblies, as well as for individuals, communities, and organizations facing repression and violence. The fund allows Amazon Watch to mobilize financial resources quickly during times of crisis and to address needs that are not traditionally funded. During the Amazon fires in 2019, the ADF became one of the leading channels for foundations and private donors to immediately reach affected communities.

Now, in the face of COVID-19, the ADF is once again mobilizing funds to address the most pressing needs in indigenous communities. The ADF is providing communications equipment for prevention and urgent care, personal protective supplies, clean water, and basic food kits for affected families. In the long term, the ADF is funding strategies by indigenous groups to transform their government's healthcare system to respond to and address indigenous needs. The needs in the Amazon region are growing every day, as indigenous communities continue to bear the brunt of negligence by their governments. One tragic epicenter of the crisis is the Ucayali region of Peru.

Recently, "Oxygen for Ucayali" has been the rallying cry on social media by a group of Shipibo and Ashaninka indigenous leaders and activists. As reported in The Guardian, disaster capitalists across Peru are taking advantage of the desperation of people to increase the price of a cylinder of oxygen from 600 soles (US $175) to up to 5000 soles (US $1,450), pushing an already inaccessible resource fully out of reach for indigenous peoples with the virus.

Indigenous leaders of the Ucayali region of the Peruvian Amazon are demanding that the Peruvian government undertake a more effective and rapid response to the Amazonian communities dealing with high rates of COVID-19. Like many health systems around the world, the Peruvian system is collapsing and unprepared to address the health of its people, but above all the health of indigenous peoples. Amazonian apus (chiefs) and community members of Ucayali have been severely ill with COVID-19. The local health posts are ill-equipped and not able to provide any care for those afflicted with the disease. On May 12th, due to a lack of oxygen supply in the clinic, Silvio Vallés, the Shipibo-Conibo Mayor of Masisea in Ucayali, died from complications of COVID-19. The government authorities' lack of response and the outrageous increase in the cost of oxygen has caused the death of 45 Shipibo-Conibo people, as reported by the Federation of Native Communities of the Ucayali River and Tributaries (FECONAU) on May 17th.

The Amazon Defenders Fund was founded on the principle that philanthropy needs to be responsive to needs on the ground. Our fund is often the last line of defense and support, stepping in to fill a funding need like in Ucayali. The ADF has provided solidarity funds for the Regional Organization of AIDESEP-Ucayali, ORAU's emergency COVID-19 rapid response, and urgent medical care of its apu. At the same time, we are also supporting the Shipibo-Conibo Center, a cultural center that focuses on indigenous self-determination and territorial sovereignty as well as visual arts, music, and ethnobotanical research. So far, we have contributed to the distribution of the 500 relief kits to families of Pucallpa and Yarinacocha. At the national level, we provided a grant to the National Indigenous Association of the Peruvian Amazon (AIDESEP) to purchase protective equipment and food, and to organize communities to guarantee fair governmental aid distribution. In the border region, we supported the emergency health plan and protection of the territory of the Wampis Nation ahead of the COVID-19 shelter in place orders.

Our indigenous brothers and sisters in Peru remind us that access to oxygen and healthcare must be guaranteed rights in a just economic system. Our partners shouldn't have to choose between purchasing oxygen or paying their bills or feeding their families. COVID-19 is showing us the face of the global food and health crisis and demanding literal oxygen to sustain our survival.

The Earth Defenders of the Amazon are the ones who have nurtured, protected, and defended the Amazon rainforest for centuries. Because of Earth Defenders, we have benefitted from the Amazon rainforest's ability to convert CO2 in oxygen for us. Now, in this time of global crises around the world, Earth Defenders need us to stand in solidarity with them and contribute to their efforts.

We need oxygen not merely to survive but to breathe justice.

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