Story | 06 Jan, 2021

FPP report analyses impacts and underlying inequalities around COVID-19 for indigenous and tribal peoples

CEESP News: by Caroline de Jong, Policy Advisor, Forest Peoples Programme* 

Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) recently released its report “COVID-19 and indigenous and tribal peoples: The impacts and underlying inequalities”.  Building on grassroots stories from ten countries and wider research, it describes how the pandemic has highlighted underlying inequalities in its impacts on indigenous and tribal communities and territories.

Kawemhakan community (Suriname) blocking airstrip to prevent Covid outbreak.  Photo by Mulokot Foundation, permission from Kawemhakan community and Mulokot for usage of the image.

The pandemic is exacerbating inequalities for indigenous and tribal peoples

Indigenous and tribal peoples, including the communities who live within and around tropical forests, hold collective rights to the governance and management of their lands, territories and resources. They have a strong connection to, and dependency on, their traditional territories. Poverty often impedes their access to basic necessities such as health care, water, sanitation and food—all essential for minimising the risks and impacts of COVID-19. But beyond poverty, indigenous and tribal peoples’ resilience to crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic is determined by the extent to which their collective rights to lands and self-determination are respected and protected. These rights are the foundation of their livelihoods, their culture, and their survival. Indigenous and tribal peoples have long struggled against the inequalities they experience due to the lack of recognition of these rights. Our research shows that the COVID-19 pandemic, including the measures imposed to curb its spread, is exacerbating these inequalities.

In Forest Peoples Programme’s recently released report, we analysed the impacts of COVID-19 on indigenous and tribal peoples’ rights, particularly the longer-term impacts on their land tenure rights, which are under-represented in pandemic analyses and debates. We collected stories from peoples and communities in ten countries—Cameroon, Colombia, Guyana, Kenya, Indonesia, Peru, the Philippines, Suriname, Thailand and Uganda—and conducted a desktop review of news stories and reports on indigenous and tribal peoples’ responses to the pandemic and its effects on their communities around the world. The stories reveal the inequalities that place indigenous and tribal peoples at higher risk of sickness and death from contracting COVID-19, (‘direct impacts’), and how measures introduced to manage the virus, such as lockdowns and physical distancing, are leaving them even more vulnerable.

The drivers of inequality

We identified the drivers of these inequalities, categorising them according to their immediacy in terms of the direct impacts of COVID-19: immediate, dynamic, and systemic.

FPP report analyses impacts and underlying inequalities around COVID-19 for indigenous and tribal peoplesPhoto: Mulokot Foundation, permission from Kawemhakan community and Mulokot for usage of the image

The basic preventive measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 are restrictions in mobility, observing proper hygiene, and wearing of masks. For indigenous and tribal peoples, among the most immediate concerns are:

• the lack of access to proper health care, clean water and sanitation supplies

• the lack of language-friendly and culturally appropriate information about COVID-19

• the inability to observe physical distancing

• hunger and access to food.

Affecting the overall resilience of communities, the dynamic pressures driving inequality for indigenous and tribal peoples include:

• increased deforestation, land-grabbing and violence

• instability of livelihoods and lack or loss of food security and self-sufficiency

• insufficient government services, including culturally appropriate health care and education

• ineffective information and communication infrastructure.

The underlying causes of inequality contributing to how the pandemic affects indigenous and tribal peoples are also the most intractable and the least likely to be resolved, or effectively addressed, as the world moves to a “new reality” of living with COVID-19. Yet, they are crucially important for sustained change. These underlying causes stem, in part, from political systems that generally disregard indigenous and tribal peoples’ collective rights to land, cultural integrity and self-determination, and which are linked to pervasive discrimination against them.

Systemic causes of inequality exacerbating the impact of COVID-19 on indigenous and tribal peoples include:

• insecure land tenure

• discrimination and lack of recognition of self-governance rights

• forced eviction

• economic recovery that puts profit before people

• a perspective that separates humans from the natural world.

Recommendations and further information

In the report we recommend actions that governments and other duty-bearers can take to combat these drivers of inequality. These range from immediate actions to prioritise saving lives and preventing the direct impacts of COVID-19, to medium-term and long-term actions for systemic change. These can be found in the report, which is available in English, French and Spanish, at .

The ten country stories will also be released separately in the first months of 2021.

Joyce Godio, the lead author, presented the report at the UNPFII expert group meeting on Indigenous Peoples and Pandemics on 9 December 2020.  The meeting was live-streamed on Facebook.

FPP report analyses impacts and underlying inequalities around COVID-19 for indigenous and tribal peoples       Photo: Caroline de Jong
* Caroline de Jong is a Policy Advisor in the Environmental Governance team at Forest Peoples Programme. She leads the work on cultural-ecological resilience and was one of the coordinators of this research project, for which Marie-Joyce Godio was the lead author