This story is also available to read in Spanish and in Portuguese.
Indigenous memories, with their hopes and atrocities of exploitation, run through the upper Amazon basin, from Brazil to Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, and are transmitted in the dreams and visions of their heirs. The devastating impact of the pandemic recalled the worst moments for many communities and altered community dynamics. This journalistic series coordinated by OjoPúblico in Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador — with 15 journalists and 7 indigenous artists — seeks to create a collective exhibition on the impact of this health crisis on the cosmovision of the Amazonian peoples from the intimacy of art.
Indigenous memory — with its lights, knowledge and nightmares — runs through the dreams of the Amazonian peoples. Before the first cases of coronavirus reached the native communities, the Kukama began to have the same dreams that mortified their grandparents in the violent years of the rubber era in the Amazon. They dreamed of the maisangara, as they call the demon that drags all evils. During the first months of 2020, the grandsons and granddaughters would tell their grandparents, the wisest of the communities, about the nightmare of the previous night; and they would interpret and share the meanings of these bad dreams. Another misfortune was to come.
Between 1890 and 1924, one of the most tragic events against the Amazonian peoples took place: thousands of indigenous people were enslaved and forcibly displaced to camps dedicated to the extraction of rubber: a wild rubber that in those years — as it happens now with other natural resources — was a highly valued raw material and demanded by the international market. The reports prepared by the Peruvians Carlos Valcárcel, Rómulo Paredes and the British Roger Casement denounce in detail the murders and instruments of torture that were implemented in the rubber exploitation centers: in the Putumayo area alone, between Peru and Colombia, they estimate that the indigenous population was reduced in 10 years from 40,000 people to 10,000.
With the violent extraction of rubber also came new diseases, such as smallpox, which affected a large part of the subjugated indigenous peoples.
"On the basis of the reliable evidence presented to me during my stay, I have no doubt that, in spite of the high mortality rate due to imported diseases, deaths from violence and suffering, due to the consequences of rubber exploitation have been much more numerous," wrote Consul Roger Casement in his 1912 report, later compiled in the Blue Book.
The Kukama began to have the same anguishing dreams that mortified their grandparents in the violent years of rubber.
The indigenous memories of the atrocities of those years run through the upper Amazon basin, from Brazil, to Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, and are transmitted in the dreams and visions of their heirs. That was what the Kukama saw in dreams, because as the Peruvian indigenous journalist Leonardo Tello says, the evils that the maisangara carry have been transformed over time, after the rubber exploitation ended, gave way to the invasion of their territories and pollution, and also the indifference of the State and the arrival of new diseases, such as Covid-19.
When the coronavirus reached the communities, Leonardo Tello asked the people — through the local radio station he runs — what they were dreaming about. They were all talking about maisangara. "Fear was back."
The pandemic spread rapidly in the Amazon. Although many communities decided to isolate themselves, the virus reached them. Thousands of indigenous people were infected and many died in their communities, far away from the hospitals that looked saturated with corpses in the hardest moments of the health crisis. The official figures silence the disaster of the impact on indigenous territory: the epidemiological records do not take into account the ethnic variable and that is why it is difficult to know how many really died victims of the new disease.
From the heart of the communities — as part of this journalistic series coordinated by OjoPúblico — a team of 15 journalists and 8 indigenous artists from Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador set out to collect testimonies and represent these dreams and visions in paintings, masks and ceramics. The record seeks to create a collective exhibition on the impact of the pandemic on the cosmovision and community practices of the Amazonian peoples from the intimacy and subjectivity of art. "Visions of Coronavirus" is a series that gathers a fragment of the indigenous memory during the first 15 months of the pandemic.
The struggle of two guardians
To the indigenous artist Lastenia Canayo it was a fly — or at least it had that shape, she recalls — that appeared to her in her dreams. A fly that wanted to attack her and that generated a lot of fear in her. That was 2020. The painter of the Shipibo-Conibo people had been infected and her body was fighting against the symptoms of Covid-19. Between the malaise and the fever, she dreamed of the fluttering of that bug that she identified with the ibo of the coronavirus, as the guardians or owners of things are called.
At her home in the Ucayali region of the Peruvian Amazon, the artist — whose indigenous name is Pecon Quena — is mortified every time she remembers those days of loss, fear and pain. Faced with uncertainty, the Shipibo-Conibo found refuge in plants. An infusion prepared from matico and eucalyptus helped them to alleviate the most intense symptoms. The response of the local leaders was unanimous: they formed a group, which they called Comando Matico, to go around and bring encouragement to the indigenous communities in the region.
After overcoming the disease, Pecon Quena captured on two canvases the ibos of the coronavirus and the matico: disease and refuge in the most complicated days of the pandemic in Peru. "I have known the matico ibo for a long time, he has always lived with us, he is like a man with a merciful face, he has the color of the earth because he protects the indigenous people," she says. Both paintings reflect the artist's vision of both guardians. The two faces of a pandemic that arrived and spread in the indigenous territory through rivers and roads.
When the first cases of Covid-19 were identified in the cities, many indigenous people living in urban areas returned to their communities. On their return, some of them carried the contagion with them. The situation worsened when even the aid from the States was delivered by officials who left the capitals and became vectors for the transmission of the virus. The road as the route through which the virus reached them. The canvas that the Kukama artist Nelvis Paredes Pacaya painted for this special portrays this situation with harshness: the corpses at the foot of a road, under the black mantle of a carrion bird, people escaping on foot or by boat into the forest, in front, defending them, the gods of the jungle represented by the force of the jaguar and a snake.
"This pandemic has shown that there was no plan for the countries and even less for the indigenous peoples," said with indignation Gregorio Mirabal, president of the Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (Coica). The different South American governments with Amazonian territories did not have a plan for the care of indigenous peoples during the first months of the pandemic. The virus continued to spread in Amazonian communities while the States prioritized — collapsed — attention in urban areas.
Even now, almost a year and a half after the first patient reported in indigenous territory, leaders continue to demand attention. The Asháninka leader in the southern Peruvian Amazon, Marco Germán Crevo, had to travel by road from his community located between the border of Peru and Brazil to reach the capital of his region to request support from the government. Between May and June 2020, the number of deaths increased in his community and he does not know if it is due to dengue or Covid-19. "There are several sick people who prefer to stay in the community and do not go out to the cities because it costs a lot of money," says the leader.
Awajún dreams revealed the plague
The dreams were also premonitory for the Awajún people, located on the border between Peru and Ecuador: they revealed a nightmare that weeks later took away dozens of siblings, parents and children. And like all new diseases, this one did not have a name in their language either, so they called it yamajam jata wainchatai iyaje: "an unknown disease has arrived".
The indigenous artist Wilder Allui was one of those who had these dreams during an ayahuasca session. In the painting he produced for this journalistic special, he portrays the struggle of the Awajún people against the coronavirus and how the members of his community turned to the plants of the forest and solidarity to seek to survive. "We [the Iinia, as the Awajún call themselves] turn to ayahuasca to see our life, also to know about illnesses, problems, to see our way. I looked and asked myself how I can portray the coronavirus, because it does not have a known face, this disease falls like the wind and people get infected and get sick, although it is not visible to the eyes. ... I wanted to see, I thought about it and there it showed me."
The official report of the Ministry of Health says that these native people of the Amazon were the most affected by the pandemic in Peru, with approximately more than seven thousand infected, only until July 2021, and an undetermined number of victims. Indigenous deaths are invisible to the States.
In his ayahuasca dreams the artist saw the houses of the community surrounded by trees, the people enclosed. "I saw what the coronavirus looked like, it was the skull of a person who came among the trees and lurked, from his mouth the disease came out. When that happened, the trees responded, the plants were the ones that fought against the coronavirus, that is what the dream showed me. This vision in the ayahuasca was what inspired me to paint this picture."
The plants were the refuge of the communities in the face of the abandonment of the states and the collapse of the health system. In his painting, Wilder Allui paints the strength of the trees. "The person you see holding on to the ayahuasca, is because he has power, he is the true root because he is waimatai (shows us the way), although his power is not visible to the eyes. Close to ayahuasca is the tsuwak (toé), which is also another powerful plant, its energy is great, even a dying person can be lifted up ... The waimaku person (who has found his way) is sustained by great plants. The tree that in one of its branches holds the spear shows the fight that the plants have given for us," explains the artist.
A few kilometers east of the community of Wilder Allui, in the Loreto region, lives Casilda Pinche, the Kukama artist who paints the colors and faces of the fear of the new disease. She recalls that everyone was afraid of being infected, afraid that the disease would reach them at the hands of those who were arriving from the cities to hide in the community, and so it was, the coronavirus touched them.
Among so much uncertainty, Casilda Pinche remembers that there was something that mortified her community more than the contagion itself, the anguish of losing the longest-lived. In the canvas she created for this journalistic series, she portrays the horror of the worst days of the pandemic: people fleeing into the forest, shamans trying to find answers, and death descending from the boats carrying people from the cities. "We were afraid of losing our great grandparents, the wise ones. We couldn't work ... or do our own thing. This virus has changed our ways of working, our customs," he says.
In all the Amazonian communities, the pandemic fractured indigenous daily life. "We stopped holding meetings, the work we call minga, our festivals, customs, anniversaries, practically a change, a total change in our community. It also affected the handicraft fairs that the mothers and women used to do, we could no longer have a daily routine, it was a total change for us. It changed our lives," says the artist, who has been painting and exploring the relationship between men and women and nature for 20 years.
The last farewell of the Siekopai sages
The new coronavirus has devastated families around the world, and in the indigenous peoples, it has also threatened the knowledge that is inherited from generation to generation, affecting the elders, the wise ones. The fears of the artist Casilda Pinche are replicated throughout the Amazon. In Ecuador, two of the first victims of Covid-19 were Siekopai elders.
Don Enrique Piaguaje was an ancestral doctor and Belisario Payaguage was the last connoisseur of the construction of traditional houses called "malocas". With less than 740 inhabitants, this group of indigenous people was the first Amazonian nationality in this country where the new disease arrived.
The fear of losing the memory of their people led them to take drastic decisions. The community leaders decided to send a group of families to a sacred place, in the heart of the forest, called Lagartococha or Pëkëiya, a place reached after a long five-day journey by canoe across the Aguarico River. "We sent those people because if something happened to us the seed had to remain. Five families stayed there," says leader Justino Piaguage.
In his workshop, located in one of the Siekopai communities, artist Wilfrido Lusitande, son of a long tradition of Siekopai painters, paints while listening to the sound of the forest. It is nightfall and crickets can be heard outside. In the room, the sound of the night mingles with the sound of his brushes on the canvas. What to paint to explain the impact of the pandemic on the Amazonian indigenous communities? The fear and the resistance Justino Piaguage speaks of? Of all the things his people went through in this pandemic, he chooses also like many other artists, hope and refuge in plants. "In this work I am going to capture the use of our traditional medicine, mainly the manzanillo tree that has helped us face the unknown disease of Covid," he says.
Wilfrido Lusitande's plants have a hyperrealism that overflows and immerses. It was the forest, he says, that saved them from losing their way. When the pandemic reached them, they locked themselves in and began to study and understand the virus with the wisdom of their grandparents. "I led with the companions who know about the plants," explains Justino Piaguage. And he says that this is how they found the best formula, until they reached a concoction that adds up to seven plants. This juice was used in the sessions that the wisest ones did with the people who presented symptoms of Covid-19, in the face of the collapse of all the sanitary systems.
The virus that changed the day of forgiveness
In the Colombian Amazon, the pandemic forced the Inga and Kamëntsá people to suspend one of their most important celebrations: the Bëtscnaté. Every year, in the weeks prior to Ash Wednesday, Gerardo Chasoy, an indigenous artist of these peoples living in the Putumayo area, would make the masks that the troupes would use in what is known as "The big day" or Bëtscnaté. This ceremony, which resembles a great carnival, commemorates one of the hardest moments in their history: slavery during the colony. This year, however, there was no ceremony or parades. The pandemic canceled the celebration.
Gerardo Chasoy's routine during those weeks of the year is always the same: he chooses a piece of white willow, rosewood or yarumo (tree species that grow in his region). After cutting it, he sands it until the surface is smooth and, only then, he begins to carve the masks with a lot of patience. First the eyes, then the mouth, until he defines the expression of a new face. The masks he made for this journalistic series do not speak of the celebration of the day of forgiveness, the artist now seeks to explain the transit of the feelings that the pandemic left them.
One of the masks expresses the face of pain for the loss of so many friends and family members; another one expresses the fear of contagion and death due to a new disease, and the third mask speaks of the hope of overcoming, of being cured. Gerardo Chasoy explains it this way: "My work means to think beautifully. It means that if we think well the way of weaving, we will go well. It is to think beautifully in order to live beautifully".
Everything around the advance of the pandemic in the world was surrounded by uncertainty. For a year, science had to face an unknown enemy, but the indigenous peoples were not surprised by the appearance of this new virus. The indigenous artist Gerardo Chasoy says that the wise men of his people sensed that something would happen because of humanity's bad relationship with the Earth.
"That is something from their own cosmovision that is very deep. What the taitas [community leaders] felt through the energy was that a strong change was coming that was going to shake the whole planet. They talked about the need to return to the Earth, because, although we always talk about the importance of protecting and taking care of mother Earth, we need to let her be, to let her feel. It is a strong call to all humanity to become aware", explains one of the leaders, Judy Jacanamajoy.
The art of protecting oneself from the virus
The feeling that something terrible is going to happen was also felt by Brazilian anthropologist and indigenous artist Jaime Diakara. When he returned from a trip from Rio de Janeiro to Manaus, where he lives, he felt the first symptoms of the coronavirus in his body. It was April 2020. He had fever, malaise and headache. He did not get tested, he says it was not necessary. All his ailments coincided with the new disease. With hospitals collapsed, he and his entire family, who were also infected, had to treat themselves at home. "We used herbal teas and blessings," he says.
In addition to seeking answers in plants, Jaime Diakara took refuge in art. Aware that he was living through an important moment, he recorded his sorrows on canvas. "I started to sketch on paper everything I was feeling and that's how I made this drawing," he recalls, showing one of the first paintings he made during the pandemic.
In the painting he made for this journalistic series, the indigenous artist interprets the violence of this new disease. He says that from very early on he felt that it was not a normal flu: "It was the ümüko pehti dohtigü wehsa, it was another type of beings that attacked us".
The artist and researcher explains in detail: "In the Desana culture we say that there is a period of attack by viruses that circulate in the Puêküri and Kümarĩ season cycle, which we call the Doahtise Bükürã viruses. These viruses travel the path of the Upimã stars, which is where they live. And when these viruses are provoked by human beings, they react by causing the diseases, as one who defends himself from the enemies. In this case, we, the human beings". The world's reaction to humanity's behavior.
For the indigenous communities, this pandemic has strengthened their relationship with the forest. Now more than ever, as Leonardo Tello says, they bow with deep respect every time they pass in front of a medicinal plant or tree. "Trees are the wise ones among the people. We are not of that category of 'people', but we need their medicinal knowledge when we get sick. To get their help we have to be related in harmony, respecting each other."
The 10 pieces created by the 8 indigenous artists from Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador for this journalistic series reflect the strength of this relationship, between man and nature, women and forests. The search and refuge in plants. The importance of wisdom and knowledge that is inherited through generations. All the testimonies collected denounce the abandonment of the States, and expose in each of their works how the pandemic affected community practices, based on collective help and trust. The new disease took away their children, brothers and sages. Their art is also a wake-up call to rethink our relationship with nature.
Direction and general editing: Nelly Luna Amancio
Assistant editor: Gloria Ziegler
Amazonian indigenous artists: Lastenia Canayo, Casilda Pinche, Nelvis Paredes Pacaya, Wilder Allui, Gerardo Chasoy, Jaime Diakara, Wilfredo Lusitande.
Investigative journalism: Geraldine Santos, Ralph Zapata, Leonardo Tello, Yanua Atamaín, Nelly Luna Amancio (Peru), Juliana Jaimes, Duber Rosero (Colombia), María Belén Arroyo, Iván Izurieta Jiménez (Ecuador), Izabel do Santos, Stefan Wrobleski (Brazil).
Photographic curatorship: Florence Goupil
Photographs: David Díaz, Yanua Atamaín
Podcast production: Priscila Fernández and Pablo Mares
Web development: Leonardo Cucho Gamboa
Illustration: Rocio Urtecho
English translation: Violeta Hoyle/Sandro Mairata
Portuguese translation: Elisa Martins
Social media: Alonso Balbuena, Ayrton Gamarra, Myriam Escalante