More than 50 indigenous communities live in the Peruvian Amazon, with culture, history, and languages, riches that must not be lost. And just like the rest of the country they face the biggest crisis in our times; the coronavirus pandemic.
But their fight is an uneven one.
According to the latest national census, only 32 percent of indigenous communities in the country have medical services, and out of those, 92 percent are outposts without medical personnel. Only 1.7 percent of these facilities have an emergency ward. The gap in medical attention translates into ever-rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in areas where most indigenous communities live. By January 13, more than 28,000 indigenous people had been infected with COVID-19.
It’s been said that the pandemic does not discriminate, but for those who face it at a disadvantage, its effects will be greater, and last longer.
UNDP, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, and the Confederation of Amazonian Nationalities of Peru (CONAP) have created “Respira Amazonía” (Amazon’s Breath), a series of 60 short radio messages in indigenous languages, to be transmitted over four months in 10 radio networks in the Peruvian Amazon.
Radio in your language
“I think it’s a more natural way of reaching out to [indigenous] communities,” says Edson Mego Yana, from the Kakataibo. Edson, 32, is the only registered Kakataibo translator in the Ministry of Culture. “Sometimes we think that because we’re far away from the city we will not be affected by the virus. That because we’re indigenous we’re stronger. But that’s not true. This is a way to inform what’s really happening, what the virus causes, and how contagious it is.”
Besides highlighting the wisdom and customs of these communities, spreading information in different languages gives them importance and respect.
Of the 47 different indigenous languages spoken in Peru, 44 are in the Amazon. According to the 2017 census, 4.3 million people declared a language other than Spanish as their mother tongue. The radio programmes transmit important information and in this way, a safe space is born.
“All the communities in the Amazon and the Andes feel safe and at home when we speak to each other in our own language. We feel represented, we feel happy,” says Valbina Miguel Toribio, from the Yanesha community, has been leading her organization for more than 10 years. She’s the National Coordinator for the Federation of Yanesha Native Communities.
Valbina is in charge of Respira Amazonia in Yanesha, one of the languages most at risk of extinction. According to the Ministry of Culture, only 1,142 people speak Yanesha in the entire country.
It’s key to find these languages and give them newfound importance to avoid losing them, and thus preventing the loss of the history and culture they bear witness to. To record the Respira Amazonia radio programes some less-spoken languages were also selected; the final list includes Ashaninka, Shipibo-konibo, Awajún, Yanesha, Kakataibo, and Ychuar.
Getting information in one’s own language, is something that most people take for granted, but one that does not exist for thousands of Peruvians. It also represents a first step toward bigger projects. “It would be interesting to have a bigger space to talk about these ideas in the district’s radio,” says Edson. “It’s one thing to hear a short message during a break, but another would be to have a programme many communities can tune into. There’s a lot of young people with the drive and initiative to make it happen.”
This is the spirit of indigenous communities, a sense of community that always guides them toward working with others. “Even if we’re going through a hard time, whatever role we play, we’re in this together. Wherever we are, we will always work together. For our women, our children, our communities,” says Valbina.
Communication is key
Communication was a fundamental part of the process. It meant organized work between the government, indigenous organizations as well as international cooperation.
The scripts were built collectively and went through arduous cycles of revisions where everyone highlighted their priorities to make them work with each other.
“We wanted the government to fulfill its role of guarantor of rights and that citizens become active participants in defense of their rights. Our role is to be in the middle,” says Alison Hospina, Gender and Interculturality Specialist, UNDP Peru.
“CONAP has been meeting with UNDP and with the government to join efforts, because it’s time to work together and combine compromises and responsibilities to reach our indigenous communities,” says Oseas Barbaran, President of CONAP.
Although Valbina is stationed in Lima, she can reach her family in the Pasco region. She and tell them how to take care of themselves, and of others.
“Through my voice, even if I’m far away, I can make my message heard,” she says. “If I’m getting emotional, being the person who records these, I wonder how heartfelt someone who hears these must feel. It must feel nice.”
Author: Daniella Toce, UNDP Peru