Indigenous Perspectives on Pandemics and Crises in the Amazon

While the COVID-19 pandemic caused all of Europe to be placed under lockdown in April and May 2020, it became clear on the other side of the Atlantic that the virus would not stop at the threshold of the sparsely populated Amazon. This provided the impetus for a new transcultural research project, initiated by the Ethnologisches Museum and financed by the Volkswagen Foundation, which builds on existing partnerships with local organisations to enable the expression of indigenous perspectives on pandemics and crises.

In the Upper Rio Negro area (Brazil/Colombia), where the Ethnologisches Museum is currently involved in two collaborations, infection rates were at times alarming. In the Brazilian town of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, for example, the infection rate reached 511 per 10,000 inhabitants at the end of May. The deaths of several well-known indigenous elders and leaders also made headlines in Brazil. As no help was expected from the state, an impressive self-organised effort was launched in the region, supported by Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a partner of the Ethnologisches Museum, and the Federation of Indigenous Organisations of Rio Negro (FOIRN). On the Colombian side of the Upper Rio Negro, where the Ethnologisches Museum works together with the indigenous high school ENOSIMAR, a lockdown was implemented months ago. However, COVID-19 appears to have only recently begun to spread rapidly there, reaching even remote indigenous communities, while there are indications that the situation in north-western Brazil is gradually easing.

Better Understanding the Spread of COVID-19

The focus of the project The Relational Museum: Sharing Knowledge on Epidemics and Crises on the Upper Negro River (Brazil/Colombia), recently launched by the Ethnologisches Museum, is to better understand the dynamics of the spread of COVID-19, and to highlight local strategies for dealing with the threat posed by the disease. In addition, the knowledge gained throughout the project will be communicated and made accessible to a broad audience which – despite travel restrictions and social distancing – is interested in how the pandemic is affecting other parts of the world. Epidemics and crises are not a new phenomenon in the Amazon; major outbreaks of diseases with sometimes dramatic consequences remain present in the memories of elders.

Part of the project involves supporting a network of indigenous researchers with scholarships for the collection of diverse health-related stories and data in the form of texts, interviews, photo documentation and illustrations, together with two health researchers. The results will be published on a joint website and in print.

Decolonising Knowledge Production

The goal of the project is to use personal stories to critique Europe’s often-generalised portrayal of indigenous peoples as victims of yet another disaster (on top of forest fires, etc.) The stories should further convey that historical collections are not only a colonial burden, but also provide an opportunity for dynamic collaborations that can actively contribute to the decolonisation of knowledge production and relationships – including or especially in times of crisis and social distancing.

Project Coordination: Dr. Andrea Scholz (Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
Cooperation Partner: Instituto Socioambiental (ISA, Brasilien), Federação das Organizações Indígenas do Alto Rio Negro (FOIRN, Brasilien), Escuela Normal Superior Indígena Maria Reina (ENOSIMAR, Kolumbien)
Project Funding:: VolkswagenStiftung
Duration:since October 2020