During a pandemic, Indigenous communities tend to be among the most vulnerable, given their often-limited access to water, food supplies, adequate healthcare, and other factors. In this special “Pandemic Perspectives” series of our Dispatches, we’re sharing stories from around the world to shed some light on the obstacles Indigenous Peoples face in light of COVID-19 lockdowns—along with the ingenuity and unity with which they’re facing them.
This post was written by Yolanda López Maldonado. Yolanda is an Indigenous systems thinker in integrative science for sustainability, with extensive experience representing Indigenous Peoples’ interests in scientific and policy fora. Her mission is to create respectful approaches in any field or discipline that is conducted by, grounded in, or engages with Indigenous Communities, their wisdom, and their knowledge systems.
The coronavirus crisis has had enormous consequences for Indigenous Peoples and local communities worldwide. Before the pandemic, we faced inequality, a lack of access to health care, insufficient telecommunications, and information in our own languages, making it difficult to understand and survive in this globalized world. Now, the virus has spread throughout our territories, interrupting our Indigenous traditions and livelihoods, and impacting our mental health. Nevertheless, we are very resilient. We are finding alternative ways to survive, heal, cook, eat, celebrate, and recover. Thus, as the pandemic and its socio-economic repercussions are evolving globally, the world is seeing a simultaneous recovery of Indigenous and local knowledge. There is also a resurgence of movements previously denigrated by Western societies — such as the use of our languages, respect for our ceremonies, and knowledge about ancestral care and community practices.
Reconnecting with Our Mayan Roots
In many communities in Mexico, Indigenous Peoples suffer from systemic racism. Thus, many prefer not to be identified as a member of an Indigenous group. Growing up in a Maya community of the Yucatan Peninsula, I found early in life that many Mayan people also preferred to avoid being labeled Indigenous and shied away from speaking their native language. After approximately six months of lockdown during the pandemic, however, I’ve now noticed a swelling in sentiments of belonging and community, as well as a strengthening of Indigenous knowledge-based responses to the crisis.
Throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns, almost all of the Maya communities have closed their territories, barricading villages against foreigners and outsiders. Only community members are allowed to enter. As a result, Indigenous groups have ensured the survival of our communities, warded off evil spirits, and restored our cultural traditions. Community members have reinforced their Maya roots, returned to participate in various traditional spaces, and begun to rebuild a broken identity. This convergence between being, thinking, acting, dreaming, and belonging to a Maya community is fundamental for maintaining Indigenous knowledge and leadership—especially during this time of great environmental challenge.
I spent the initial months of the pandemic in my community in Yucatan. During this time, I witnessed firsthand how nature and Indigenous Maya society are changing and responding to the lockdown. People seemed less preoccupied with individualism and the accumulation of wealth as they grew more in solidary, co-operation, and greater connection to Mother Nature. I also realized that, now that our globalized world has almost collapsed, this is the moment for us to use our ancestral knowledge to protect and care for our planet. Societies need to put values, worldviews, experiences, and needs of Indigenous Peoples at the center of the environmental global narratives.
It has long been shown that our Indigenous knowledge is a powerful tool for conservation. In recent years, scientists have begun to see the connection between Western science and our knowledge in order to learn how our Indigenous groups have made decisions about how to take care of and protect the environment. They have attempted to harness that knowledge in various partnerships and projects, even involving in some of them the large-scale extraction of natural resource, violently ignoring the rights of our Indigenous groups. After many such collaborations, however, our rivers are more polluted, our air is more contaminated, and our animals are becoming extinct.
Nevertheless, critics have suggested that Indigenous traditional culture and approaches to the use of ecosystems are ineffective for conservation. But this is not so. In Western-scientific approaches, Mother Nature is always seen as an object that can be exploited—and that is why our whole planet is still going in the wrong direction. The problem, from my perspective, is that somehow the whole of humanity needs to engage Indigenous knowledge as it is, with the worldviews and complexities inherent in it, without trying to validate it. We should stop dreaming and pursuing that long-fancied path of development and modernity and try to rediscover another one. A path where nature is a fragile being, with limits and complexities, a path on which we all have to learn to live in harmony with nature. Indigenous knowledge-holders have thus become central players in this regard, especially for exploring lessons and principles for living in harmony with nature.
Returning to the Milpa—Mesoamerican Agriculture
While the pandemic has left many people in modern society reeling in isolation, connected to the Internet but disconnected from the natural world, Indigenous Peoples have been reconnecting with nature. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, reporters have shared many success stories about this and many other Indigenous responses, resistance, and resilience the world over. These dispatches offer many informative lessons—for instance, about the value of recovering and maintaining cultural traditions surrounding the growing and sharing of food.
At a time when Indigenous communities’ food supply chains are under stress, Indigenous peoples are growing, cooking, and producing their own food as a way to survive and resist COVID-19. In Yucatan, the production and commercialization of local food from Indigenous communities represents more than a third of the sector’s jobs. But since February 2020, this sector has been practically paralyzed. Whereas Indigenous Peoples used to travel from their communities to the local city markets most mornings to sell fresh food, most of them now stay home. With new safety restrictions in place, the commercialization of food is simply not possible. As a result, Indigenous families’ finances have been impacted, as well as their food sovereignty.
Nevertheless, some Maya communities are now implementing innovative ways of growing, cooking, selling, and exchanging their products, acting together in solidarity. Many have resumed using the milpa, the traditional crop-growing system used throughout Mesoamerica for millennia. In Yucatan, Mayas went to the forest to grow maize, squash, beans, and chili. They also revived traditional medicine through the gathering of medicinal plants and roots. They re-introduced many foods and food-production techniques used by the ancient Maya civilization. For instance, many returned to a pre-Hispanic cooking technique involving ovens made beneath the soil. This technique is generally used to cook the meat of wild animals, so it lasts longer. Animals such as wild deer and turkey are also returning to traditional Maya kitchens as fare.
Cooking using the Mayan technique known as “pib,” which consists in the construction and use of an underground oven in which the food is slowly cooked. This technique is also used to preserve the food for longer periods without refrigeration. Video: Yolanda Lopez, 2020
At a time where the modern world is ordering food on the internet and buying expensive organic food in the supermarkets, we, the Maya, are growing our own produce on our patios and in our gardens. We are consuming our crops from the milpa and selecting the best seeds; we are buying and exchanging goods at our community and local markets. Thus, our food sovereignty is more secure than it is for many on the planet. We are embedded in the modern world, but we draw on age-old wisdom for sustenance.
Mental Health Challenges and an Uncertain Future
Despite these triumphs, and many more, the Mayas of the Yucatan, and many other Indigenous groups around the world, are unlikely to escape the social, ecological, and economic effects of the pandemic unscathed. As with other Indigenous Peoples around the world, issues like emotional distress, suicide, and other mental health challenges were problematic for us before the pandemic—and may well be exacerbated by it. Indigenous Peoples are among the most vulnerable to mental health challenges, given that we often lack access to social security programs specifically designed to safeguard mental (and physical) health.
Talking about this topic within Indigenous communities has been, and continues to be, taboo. In Yucatan, mental health challenges are still seen as a stigma, and mental health support is provided only in the main city, making the access difficult for people in rural areas. This situation is of great concern, since the Yucatan has one of the highest suicide rates relative to the total number of violent deaths per state. This mental health crisis is among many inequalities—including insufficient health care, deforestation, stigmatization, and racism—that threatened Indigenous peoples before the COVID-19, and which may be amplified in its wake.
Nonetheless, for many Mayas, reconnecting with nature in the Maya forest provided an unexpected gift. It offered us a powerful means of dealing with anxiety and other mental health challenges, and it helped us address food scarcity, among other problems brought on by the pandemic. Above all, we used the opportunity to rediscover our solidarity and strength through ancient wisdom. For the rest of the world, the crisis offers an opportunity to reconnect with the natural world and to recognize that the knowledge of Indigenous peoples, if heeded, can help with the very survival of humanity. Indigenous groups will always resist, and we will always be resilient. It is thus a moral duty for people worldwide to begin to learn and respect Indigenous knowledge and ways of life to ensure the wellbeing of our planet, and the future of humankind.
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