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  • Evans Balikudollar

The indigenous community that predicted Covid 19.

For hundreds of years, indigenous groups have warned that destroying the environment leads to disease and adversely affects lives and culture. Is the world now ready to listen?

Levi Sucre Romero remembers hearing the news back in January about a novel coronavirus infecting people in China. “I honestly didn’t believe it would make it this far,” he said. “I felt like it was really far away.”

Member and leader of the Bribri, one of Costa Rica’s largest indigenous groups, Romero lives in Talamanca, a remote, mountainous region in the south of the country full of meandering rivers, dense jungle canopies and a near-constant drizzle of warm rain. Though the thatched-roof wooden homes of Talamanca Bribri, the group’s territory, are far removed from the country’s popular tourist hubs, Romero soon realised that it was only a matter of time until the virus reached them.

Romero also realised something else: the virus, he believes, was unleashed by human greed and ill treatment of the planet. “We’re unbalancing the habitat of species, we’re cutting down trees, we’re planting monocultures, we’re filling the world with cities and asphalt and we’re using too many chemicals,” Romero said. “It’s a cocktail of bad practices.”

Like Sars and Mers, two other recent, deadly coronaviruses, Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease that came from an animal. Evidence points to its likely origin in a bat, followed by a potential crossover into an intermediary species – possibly a pangolin – before transmission into humans at a wet market in Wuhan, China. While Covid-19’s exact origins have yet to be pinpointed, overwhelming research shows that deforestation and commercial wildlife trade heighten the risk of zoonotic diseases that can potentially cause pandemics.

“My people have cultural knowledge that says when Sibö, our God, created Earth, he locked up some bad spirits,” Romero said. “These spirits come out when we’re not respecting nature and living together.”

For years, Romero and other indigenous leaders have been urging the rest of the world to adopt a more indigenous-inspired way of coexisting with nature, including leaving habitats intact, harvesting plants and animals at sustainable levels and acknowledging and respecting the connection between human and planetary health. Now, they are reiterating that message in light of the coronavirus.

The Bribri live in a remote, mountainous region in the south of Costa Rica full of dense jungle and meandering rivers (Credit: Avalon/Getty Images)

“We are convinced that this pandemic is the result of a wrong use of natural resources and a wrong way of living together with these resources,” Romero said. “I do not believe this will be the last pandemic of this type.”

A wealth of research supports the link between novel disease emergence and environmental destruction. Many viruses naturally occur in animal species, and deforestation increases the odds of people coming into contact with an animal carrying a virus that is new to humanity, potentially resulting in a spill-over event

such activities carry an intrinsic risk of disease emergence because they disrupt ecological dynamics and increase contact between humans, livestock and wildlife.

Menton adds that indigenous people face additional threats because of racism and “perceptions that they’re second-class citizens”. Often, this is a problem promoted from the top down. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, recently said, for example, that “Indians are evolving” to become “increasingly human, like us”. Indigenous people, in other words, are “facing threats both in terms of actual physical conflicts over land, but also cultural threats and attacks over their right to exist,” Menton said.

Attacks on indigenous rights are not just attacks on individual cultures, Romero says, but on the health of the planet as a whole. “When we have rights over our forests and our lands, that means survival for us, for our families,” he said. “But it also means we have a better probability of avoiding pandemics.”

The Bribri, like much of the world, are now on lockdown. “The rhythm of our lives has been cut short,” he said. Visits with elders are no longer permitted, sales of produce to the national market have dropped by around 90%, and the group’s cultural and ecological tourism efforts – including guided trips to mountains and rivers, traditional food tours and home stays on family ranches – have stopped as well. “I could go on and on. There’s a lot of impacts,” Romero said.

Once the world does emerge from Covid-19, Romero hopes that there will be a silver lining to all of the suffering, loss and hardship that it has caused. He hopes that people will be more receptive to the knowledge that he and other indigenous leaders have to offer, and that humanity will begin to re-evaluate its relationship with nature.

“I think we have a long way to go, but after the coronavirus, I have faith that this will open up some space with governments,” Romero said. “After this pandemic, governments should listen more.”

Adapted from BBC TRAVEL, For the Travel lovers.

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