Voluntary self-isolation has been practiced for millennia by uncontacted peoples, so as not to be victims of the devastating consequences of Western civilization and progress. Several intergovernmental organizations have recognized this legal right and survival strategy of peoples to protect their land and territory, as a way of protecting themselves against genocide, colonization, and the preservation of their traditions and culture.
Facing COVID-19, indigenous peoples and communities in the northern and southern hemispheres decided to close their borders in voluntary isolation, to prevent access to their territories by people outside the populations. Guided by the historical memory of epidemics imposed by settlers and invaders, most of them came to the same conclusion: the best way to protect ourselves is to isolate as a community.
The social distancing was put into practice with a vision of extended “social bubbles” and, in this way, isolate themselves to safeguard community life. The idea of being “physically distant but socially close” allowed the creation of wide spaces of social interaction that enable them to keep productive activities, such as farming and the bartering of products, and the care of social health to reinforce and enhance the chances of survival. The pandemic has even served to recover ancient teachings, traditional indigenous medicine, and with the practice of preparing community meals to prevent hunger.
Unfortunately, the right to close their borders has also placed communities in voluntary isolation in direct tension with countries where the paramount is the profit and continuing megaprojects over the lives of their inhabitants, leading to a chaotic premature reopening.
For example, despite the successful strategy of protecting the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in the US, the Governor of South Dakota has even called for federal government intervention to “reopen” the roads, without acknowledging international treaties of self-determination and protection of indigenous peoples. The rush is directly linked to extractivist pipeline projects in the region.
In Brazil, in the Amazon forest, Bolsonaro’s government has openly supported predatory projects of deforestation, monoculture, and extractivism, threatening indigenous peoples with repression for the closure of roads and communities that seek to protect themselves from the pandemic.
In Chile, some Mapuche People tried to isolate themselves in their historical territory but were violently evicted, in the midst of the pandemic, without any consideration.
In Canada, the Assembly of First Nations supported the legal right that assists people to isolate and protect themselves and close their communities, including the roads that cross through their territory, while the government is pressuring them to open the roads to benefit extractive projects. In that country, First Nations have the constitutional legal right that allows them to defend that right to voluntary self-isolation in court.
Each Indigenous Nation is using its experience in the historical memory they share of past and current epidemics that threatened their population, but also provide them with local tools to unleash protection mechanisms. Voluntary self-isolation is a right that they have and must be respected.
As our ancestors teach us: each finger of the hand by itself is strong, but together, all the fingers create a powerful, unique tool: a closed fist to protect our dignity.