Ryan Chiao, Photo Editor

Last month, the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School released a report on COVID-19-related threats to Indigenous people and forest environments. 

The report, “Rolling Back Social and Environmental Safeguards in the Time of COVID-19,” was created in collaboration with the Forest Peoples Programme, a United Kingdom–based organization which aims to protect Indigenous forest people’s rights and lands, and the Middlesex University London School of Law.

In the report, researchers highlighted the increased degree of violence Indigenous people are facing during the pandemic in five different countries. Sofea Dil LAW ’21, who worked on the Democratic Republic of the Congo section of the report, told the News that as part of the Human Rights Clinic, she often expects the worst when it comes to investigating injustices. Still, she said that some of the findings were shocking.

“What was particularly striking to me was the attacks by eco-guards in protected national park land on Indigenous communities that are attempting to reclaim their ancestral lands,” Dil said. “The fact that those eco-guards are actually supported by international organizations.”

According to “Yale Environment 360,” published by Yale School of the Environment, “eco-guards” are “park guards funded by conservation organizations” that have been known to mistreat Indigenous people in African countries such as DRC, Tanzania and Kenya.

The report highlights four general ways the governments of the five most forested countries — DRC, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia and Peru — have curtailed and violated the rights of Indigenous people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers found that government policies are further prioritizing expansion of industries over Indigenous peoples’ rights; allowing illegal land grabs and deforestation; weakening regulations aimed to protect Indigenous people and promoting an environment where Indigenous people face increased violence for attempting to exercise their rights. 

Such violations are occurring while governments are simultaneously battling a pandemic on multiple fronts and dealing with competing interests. Chris Ewell LAW ’22, a researcher who worked on the Indonesia section of the report, spoke of the connection between the trends identified in the report and the present strain on the global economy due to the ongoing pandemic. 

“Countries all over the world feel like they need to act quickly to sort of save some economic interest,” said Ewell. As a result, certain changes in policy that adversely affect Indigenous people and their land “were put forward as necessary exceptions to the rule,” Anna Wherry LAW ‘21, who was involved in the Colombia section of the report, added. However, in all likelihood, she added “what is now the exception will become the rule.”

The diminishing protections of Indigenous people and their land come at a time when there were already few safeguards in place. According to Dil, the challenge researchers faced in discussing this issue is that it has always existed and is worsening, rather than it being a novel byproduct of the pandemic.

“There wasn’t a positive status quo before [COVID-19],” said Dil. “So for things to be getting worse, it’s really drastic.”

Indigenous people’s organized resistance to these injustices were also brought to light. According to Wherry, many groups and organizations in Colombia protested the harmful policy changes and increased assassinations of social leaders that occurred during the pandemic.

“I think what was surprising was just the scale of organizing in Colombia, especially given the complexities of COVID for meeting in person,” Wherry said. 

According to the researchers, Yale students, who have reports like these available to them, have the ability to raise awareness about these injustices.

“These issues are not very far removed from somebody who lives in the United States,” said Ewell, especially considering the extent to which people use minerals, timber and other goods imported from the aforementioned countries. He added that he encourages people to shape their life and make decisions in ways that hold institutions accountable.

According to Hema Patel ’23, vice president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale, students have a duty to understand the land and history “upon which our education is built.”

“Students should be constantly interrogating these histories and pushing Yale to do better for Indigenous peoples and lands,” Patel wrote in an email to the News. “Indigenous rights are interwoven into many of the subjects studied here at Yale — when you take a class, bring Indigenous ways of knowing, both historic and present, into the conversation. Ask questions and educate yourself, do not rely on Native students or faculty to provide all of the information that is important to being an ally. And once in a while, go outside and remember how this land came to be. With that in mind, work to respect it.”

The report was released Feb. 18 during a virtual, multilingual webinar that featured researchers and advocates from across the globe.

Michael Paz | michael.paz@yale.edu

Grace Zhang | grace.y.zhang@yale.edu

Correction, Mar. 5: An earlier version of this story referred to the Democratic Republic of the Congo as “Congo” on second reference. In fact, it is more accurate to refer to the country as “DRC” on second reference as to not confuse it with its neighbor the Republic of the Congo. The story has been updated.