July 2020 Field Report – Emergency relief efforts in COVID-19 pandemic

Matsés COVID-19 Emergency Relief Effort

Acaté and partners coordinate emergency relief efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic and safe return of Matsés to their communities 

COVID-19 lockdown in Iquitos©Acaté

Iquitos, Peru. On March 15, 2020, Peru declared a national state of emergency and deployed military and police to enforce the most stringent COVID-19 related restrictions in the world. Police and military checkpoints were set-up throughout all the cities and towns in Peru. Minors and adults over 65 were not allowed to leave their homes. Only grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks were allowed to open with limited hours. One family member per household was allowed to leave home to shop 3 times per week and a strict curfew was enforced. With only 71 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the start of the lockdown, Peru’s measures to close its borders and contain the spread of the virus were widely regarded as the most aggressive and proactive in the world. Despite this, by the end of April, COVID-19 had swept through the country, collapsing the health care system in many cities. At its peak, Peru had the second-highest rate per capita of new infections in the world.

Among the hardest-hit areas in Peru were the urban cities on the Amazon river and its tributaries, such as Iquitos, a city of nearly 500,000 in the State of Loreto in northeastern Peru. In retrospect, the pandemic exposed the pre-existing disparities in living standards and inadequacies of the healthcare system that are particularly acute for the long-neglected and impoverished Amazonian communities. Most residents of Iquitos work for cash with little job security or sick pay. For them, working from home is not a possibility. Almost half of the families do not have a refrigerator and need to venture out daily to crowded markets to obtain food. People trying to withdraw money to buy basic groceries or medical supplies faced twelve-hour lines at the banks operating with limited hours.

Quarantine measures that limited hours of banks and other essential businesses paradoxically to larger gatherings.©Acaté

Shortages of even the most basic medical supplies and the deaths of dozens of healthcare personnel led to the closure of medical facilities in Iquitos or rendered them functionally inoperable. People who needed medical attention had nowhere to go and a black market was created overnight for medical supplies and oxygen bottles. A feeling of panic swept across the city as the pandemic set-in, exacerbated by media reports showing the morgues overflowing with the bodies of victims wrapped in plastic bags. International media reports, with headlines such as “No Oxygen in the Lungs of the World”, finally brought attention to the deep inadequacies and inequities of healthcare and other social support systems for Amazonian communities.

A national state of emergency was announced by the Peruvian President Vizcarra via a televised address on Sunday night March 15. Strict restrictions went into place the next day, effectively stranding everyone in Peru who was traveling away from home. Within the context of this evolving disaster in Iquitos, up to 2,000 indigenous people were trapped in the city after the lockdown. Among the indigenous stranded in Iquitos were 180 Matsés, including their Chief (Jefe) Daniel Vela Collantes. Some, like Daniel, were traveling to a conference while others were seeking medical care, studying at university; or simply coming to buy household goods or to visit relatives.

Portraits of Matsés families stranded in Iquitos during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photographer Luis Adolpho. All images ©Acaté / Xapiri

Within weeks of the lockdown, the Matsés personal funds for food, housing, and medicines had run out. By early May, the situation for the Matsés was desperate. Many had overdue rents and had already borrowed money from their friends and family.  By early May when Daniel Vela reached out to us for emergency assistance, we were ourselves struggling with the lockdown, and the crisis in the city was rapidly escalating. The challenges of launching and completing a coordinated relief plan in the setting of the government enforced lockdown and in the setting of an unprecedented pandemic seemed so daunting as to be insurmountable.

Initial Relief

We started to gain financial support for our relief efforts for the Matsés by partnering with our colleagues at Xapiri to launch a social media fundraiser to provide food and medical assistance and to keep the Matsés from being left on the streets.

Thanks to the generous support from both Acaté’s and Xapiri’s online communities as well as a crowdfunding campaign organized by Camilla Morelli & Paddy Le Flufy, we were able to purchase and deliver the first desperately needed supplies.

Matsés chief Daniel Vela delivering the first shipment of food.©Acaté

At the same time, the State Government (Government of Loreto, Ministry of Culture) was also beginning to distribute food supplies. We merged our efforts together, and on the morning of May 22nd, through coordination by Matsés chief Daniel Vela, each Matsés family sent a representative to collect the food and fuel purchased through donations to the fundraiser.

Each family received two large sacks of food weighing in excess of 40 kg that contained everything the Matses would need to prepare meals as well as personal care items. In addition, each family that had access to a stove was given a tank of cooking gas. With their immediate sustenance needs met, Daniel began to move around the city to pay past due rents and deliver medicines to the Matsés.

While this first step provided immediate relief to the stranded Matsés, we were still not any closer to a durable solution for the Matsés stranded in Iquitos. With no end in sight of the pandemic on the horizon, the Matsés would be vulnerable to infection living in impoverished sectors of Iquitos with high rates of disease and poor sanitation, where social-distancing is simply not a realistic possibility.

Matsés family stranded in Iquitos during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photographer Luis Adolpho.©Acaté/Xapiri

Until the Matsés were back in their communities, where they are self-sufficient, they would be wholly dependent on external relief support and donations to survive. Yet the challenges and obstacles that would to be overcome to bring them home were staggering. First, there was a need for a quarantine facility for the Matsés to isolate within to prevent them from bringing the virus back to their geographically isolated and vulnerable communities. Secondly, we would need to secure transport for this group of over 100 Matsés back to their homes, accessible only by military or charter flights or an eight-day riverboat (lancha) journey. Thirdly, all of these efforts would need to be coordinated in the midst of the lockdown and required multiple special permissions from the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Culture, and the Peruvian Navy.

The Quarantine

Hotels were closed during the lockdown. In any event, putting more than one hundred people up in a hotel for weeks would be prohibitively expensive, leaving us unable to pay for their transport home. Our friends at the Chaikuni Institute and The Temple of the Way of Light made a very gracious offer to house the Matsés in their guest lodges that were vacant but this would have required two separate quarantine sessions of 70 people each and we had no plan to get the first group home once they cleared quarantine. During this time Daniel Vela had been sending letters to and calling many government agencies both local and national to seek assistance. Fortunately, Omar Arévalo and the Loreto Ministry of Culture had been working on a plan to use the closed schools to house stranded indigenous people for the quarantine period.

The Ministry of Health provided rapid tests for COVID and the people who tested negative would enter quarantine immediately. Unfortunately, for the Matsés, a large number tested positive for COVID-19, and there was no available quarantine facility for those that tested positive. Our plan had seemingly fallen apart without a viable solution. While we were scrambling to come up with a new plan Omar Arévalo called to say that he had found a second larger school for the Matsés who had tested positive to quarantine in. Acaté was able to provide for their food while Programa Warmi (a government food assistance program) organized their meals for the duration of the quarantine. 

School used for quarantine for COVID-19 tested negative Matsés.©Acaté

The Return Home

We now had two weeks to find a way to get them home or they would simply be stranded again in Iquitos once the quarantine was completed. Peruvian airspace was shut down and even if the charter flights were affordable it would take special permissions from the highest authorities in Lima to fly. We settled on a river ferry boat (lancha) as the only viable way to get the Matsés back home. We found a lancha of sufficient size with an experienced crew who were familiar with the one week journey through Brazil to Colonia Angamos, the gateway to Matsés territory, but we lacked the necessary authorizations, not to mention the funds to hire the lancha.

The funding component was solved when Amazon Watch agreed to pay for half of the lancha charter cost. Now we were left to secure authorizations to permit the first lancha carrying passengers in Peru since the lockdown. Each passenger would require a Health Certificate from the Ministry of Health and the Peruvian Navy would have to approve the voyage. The Ministry of Health sent teams to the two schools to provide checkups for the Matsés and once everyone had a clean bill-of-health the certificates of health were issued. With the certificates in hand we could apply to the Port Authority to authorize the passengers. Numerous meetings and a big stack of papers generated later, the lancha was given authorization and clearance for its journey

On the early afternoon of July 1st, after 17 days in quarantine, the Matsés were picked up from the schools by the famous Iquitos wooden buses and delivered to the port of Masusa to begin their long journey back home.

While the week-long isolation on the lancha would provide an additional biosecurity period, the Matsés in their villages asked that the returnees would go through yet another quarantine upon arrival. We were able to put together more sacks of food to support the Matsés for their third quarantine and provide for fuel to transport them back to their remote communities. The lancha carrying the Matsés, the first passenger ferry on the river since the lockdown, arrived safely on July 7th in Colonia Angamos, thus ending the Matsés multi-month ordeal

The lancha carrying the Matsés from quarantine prepares to depart for Colonia Angamos, the military outpost on the Javari river that is the gateway to their territories.©Acaté

There are some important lessons to take away from this ordeal. First, is the importance of community-based leadership. Without Matsés chief Daniel Vela’s meticulous organizing of all the information on the Matsés trapped in Iquitos; his soliciting assistance from the government; and his understanding of who needed medicines and rent money; this never could have been accomplished. Secondly, the healthcare system in Matsés territory has serious infrastructure deficiencies and the Matsés remain extremely vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. As movements of the Matsés, Angamos residents, and military personnel restart with the end of the lockdown it is possible, even probable, that COVID-19 will spread to the Matsés communities. Working with the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Health, and the Matsés leadership, we have developed a plan to improve their ability to respond to future health crises through strengthening the basic capacities of the medical posts in their territory. This initiative will be detailed in our upcoming post and fundraising campaign. 

In their ancestral rainforest homes, the Matsés are fully self-sufficient. The next steps are to protect their territories from incursion of COVID-19 and strengthen the Matsés communities ability to resist the pandemic.©Acaté / Xapiri / Mike van Kruchten

Acaté would like to thank all the individual donors who made this possible, Jack Wheeler of Xapiri, Amazon Watch, Crowd-funding organized by Camilla Morelli & Paddy Le Flufy, Folk Medicine, and Servindi. We would also like to recognize the outstanding and tireless work on the ground by Daniel Vela, Chief of the Matses indigenous people; Carla Noain, Acaté Peru Board Member; Omar Arévalo, Manager of Indigenous Affairs for the Ministry of Culture for the Government of Loreto, and the Ministry of Health.

Acaté Amazon Conservation is a non-profit organization based in the United States and Perú that operates in a true and transparent partnership with the Matsés people of the Peruvian Amazon to maintain their self-sufficiency and way of life. Operating at the leading edge of conservation, our initiatives have included the first indigenous medicine encyclopedia as well as projects with original methodology in sustainable economic development, traditional medicine, medicinal agroforestry, nutritional diversity, regenerative agriculture, biodiversity inventory, education, native language literacy, and mapping of ancestral lands. All of our initiatives are developed, led and implemented by the Matsés indigenous people. Donations are tax-deductible and go directly to fund these on-the-ground initiatives that operate with unparalleled transparency.

If you missed it, take a look at our June 2020 Field Report profiling completion of the first-ever dictionary phone app created for an Amazonian indigenous language and more from our ongoing initiative with the Matsés to support bilingual education and intergeneration transfer of ecological knowledge! In our December 2019 Field Report, we report on the landmark completion of the five-year Matsés Indigenous Mapping Initiative in which the Matsés mapped and demarcated for the first time their entire ancestral territories in Peru. The resulting maps, written in their language, are comprehensive cartographic records of their ancestral territory, history, land use and culture. 

All content and images copyright 2020 Acaté Amazon Conservation

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