Chronicle of a trip to Paoyhan: A Shipibo-Konibo Community during the COVID-19

Posted by Sharon Di Cocco on July 24, 2020

Paoyhan is a community in the Peruvian Amazon, several days away from their province capital: Loreto. In isolation within isolation, community members develop an internal protocol that results in the expression of a culture of sharing and rapport at a time when the rule of distance has been imposed.

We (Alianza Arkana) organized this trip as per the request for medicines that the community of Paoyhan had made. This request was coordinated with Chief Rafael Cairuna Tutusima and the nurse responsible for the medical post, Oscar Rodríguez Reátegui.

Deciding to send a commission to Paoyhan was a difficult process. It was clear to us that both the government and non-governmental organizations recommended not to travel to indigenous communities because of the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus there. However, upon learning that people in the community had experienced symptoms associated with COVID-19 since April, we decided to travel assuming that the virus had already arrived in this community and that this also posed a risk for us of contracting the virus. Most of all, we felt that it was important to document what was happening in this community and to communicate to the world indigenous people’s testimonies, claims and requests.

The flexibility of a fund for cultural projects allowed us to have money to respond to this emergency. We brought medicine for the medical post and food for the fifteen members of "Farmacia Viva Sanken Yaka"--a project that Alianza Arkana has supported in the past and that today is managed autonomously by the community.

After 12 hours of travel, at midnight, we arrived at the community. Despite how late it was, community members welcomed us with joy and cordiality. After a few days, community members told us that they had been waiting for external support for a long time.

When the state of emergency began in Peru (on March 16th), the authorities in Pucallpa decided to close the Ucayali River port as a security measure. The reduction in the mobility of residents from indigenous native communities resulted in a lack of medicines and difficulty to ask for aid for the community members that started to become sick from COVID-19. The authorities, however, could not prevent people from leaving Paoyhan to go collect their government subsidies and pensions in the nearest city (Pucallpa). Most of the residents in Paoyhan did not know whether they qualified for the government stimulus checks since this community lacks Internet access and therefore access to information from the government . This is the case of Brígido who is informed by his daughter who lives in the city that he was in fact eligible for the stimulus check. Thus, people started to leave Paoyhan to receive these checks and conduct other necessary business in Pucallpa. This is how the virus arrives in Paoyhan while infecting families and community members. The virus quickly reaches its peak between the months of April and May.

Poblador de Paoyhan con síntomas de Covid
Foto: Gabriela Delgado Maldonado

The pandemic generated a serious economic crisis among the community. Artisan mothers lost their business due to the lack of tourists visiting the region while many other community members lost their jobs in the city. Speaking with the community’s chief, he makes an important request: the need for the Peruvian government to invest in sustainable farming projects in the community to generate jobs. Nevertheless, Paoyhan is a fortunate community because it does not face socio-environmental problems such as deforestation, pollution from oil spills or illegal mining, as is the case in other indigenous Amazonian communities. The river supplies this community with different species of fish, residents also cultivate yucca crops, bananas and other fruits. Because traveling to urban areas such as Pucallpa--where residents have access to grocery stores--has been restricted, community members have returned to cultivating their own crops. This has meant that residents are now going back to consuming native foods rather than outside products available in conventional supermarkets. 

During our visit, we spent time visiting old friends, delivering food baskets, putting medicine on the shelves of the medical post, meeting with authorities and accompanying Oscar. When we arrived, 50 rapid tests from the Regional Health Direction of Loreto also arrived. For Oscar, the only nurse in the community, this resulted in a few intense days ahead. We decided to accompany him in his rounds of visiting the homes of residents so that they could be tested. After two days, 39 people tested positive for COVID and only 11 people tested negative.

Oscar told us that on May 27th, after two months of the declaration of “state of emergency”, the community had already experienced their highest peak of contagion and yet they only had five rapid tests for a population of 1,500 people. All five tests came back positive. "We have been marginalized, we have been forgotten!" is Oscar’s bitter exclamation. The absence of the government in this region is not unique to the COVID crisis, but rather the continuation of a long-standing practice of ignoring indigenous and rural communities. For example, the community’s medical post which is made of cement every year becomes flooded and disabled during the rainy season. Thus, residents do not have access to medical care during this season. 

Faced with these difficult conditions, Paoyhan residents came to the conclusion that the best way to deal with the pandemic is not to isolate the sick, but to support them. At first, people followed the calls for home isolation, but if someone fell ill, residents could not possibly leave them alone. Instead people sick with the virus received all the care they needed from their family. These practices of care involved treatments based on traditional medicine and special language for healing.

This is how Paoyhan has confronted COVID-19 with the instruments they know best-- and the ones available to them-- : reciprocal support and ancestral knowledge of medicinal plants. An example of this is the granddaughter of Lydia, an artisan mother, who told us about how faith had been crucial while attending to her sick grandparents. Matico (Buddleja globosa) Mucura (Petiveria alliacea), Ajosquiro (Gallesia integrifolia), Eucalyptus, onion syrup with honey, lemon and ginger are the medicinal plants and remedies that Shipibos are using for healing individuals ill with COVID. Rodolfo, the chief’s father, shared with us about the Matico plant: "We call him Comandante Matico! That’s because commanders are strong". Oscar recommends taking acetaminophen, but also continuing to take natural remedies "until your blood and all of your body are cleaned". In fact, in addition to being a nurse, Oscar also has another career: he is a healer and expert in medicinal plants. Over two days we saw him collect data on the clinical history of patients from which he gathered very interesting statistics. Oscar was able to see that there is a relationship between the continued use of medicinal plants and the health condition of people who tested COVID positive. Those who hadn’t stopped taking plants even after no symptoms were present, showed a noticeable improvement compared to those who have stopped taking them as soon as they felt better.

Pruebas rápidas
Foto: Gabriela Delgado Maldonado

Community members told us that at the beginning of the quarantine they organized to go to the forest to look for medicinal plants and distribute them among the sick. In addition, these plants were not only used as body remedies but people also burned these plants and spread the smoke emanated from them throughout their houses to protect all spaces from the virus. People shared with us the memory of a community full of smoke from 5 pm to 7 pm--an empty community, no kids were going outside to play.

It’s time to return and the boat sailor tells us that due to the dry season the water levels of the river have dropped, thus our trip will take 8 more hours than the previously scheduled 12 hours. With us on the boat is Adelinda, an artisan mother who is going to the city of Pucallpa to join her daughter who has just lost her baby. Adelinda travels for 30 hours (10 hours late due to an engine failure). She is all curled up throughout the entire trip because in her part of the boat the roof is too low. Adelinda is sitting there, she spends her time embroidering during the day and trying to cover herself from the rain at night. That’s how Shipibos commonly travel to the city: on a slow boat where the trip costs are one third less than a quick boat ticket. She has sweet eyes, Adelinda does, but she displays a sad and melancholic look. Her heart is already in the urban town with her daughter.

The systematic neglect of indigenous peoples by the government coupled with geographic and sanitary isolation in times of COVID-19 has generated a particular anthropological response in the residents of Paoyah that revolves around mutual care and ancestral knowledge of medicinal plants in a community that today, against all odds, has a minimum mortality rate.

More about: Health, chronicle
Emergency Health Fund for the Shipibo Konibo People