How securing land title improves the health of indigenous peoples

Because of unequal access to medical care and the refusal to respect indigenous peoples’ human rights, protecting indigenous peoples’ right to healthy environment and helping them improve their health outcomes is a challenge in Latin America. Existing studies suggest that indigenous peoples have higher rates of mortality and morbidity than their non-indigenous counterparts. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, child mortality rate is 70 percent higher in indigenous communities. Malnutrition among indigenous is twice as common as in non-indigenous children. The life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous is as wide as 13 years. And cancers, tuberculosis, and gastrointestinal diseases are significantly more prevalent in indigenous communities.

Photo Credits: Pan American Health Organization-PAHO

Indigenous health has reached a point of crisis. National governments and international health experts recognize this too. Some countries such as Brazil have attempted to address the specific health needs of indigenous populations. In 2010 after a series of reforms in the Ministry of Health’s indigenous health program, Brazil created a Special Secretariat on Indigenous Health (SESAI) to focus on specific indigenous health policies and provide services incorporating both western and traditional medicines. Brazil’s efforts allowed the government to gather systematic health data on indigenous people, which in turn helped health professionals to design more effective local initiatives. However, recent political turmoil and economic crisis led the Brazilian government to roll back social welfare programs. Leaving indigenous communities in a precarious situation once again.

Addressing the health crisis of indigenous people cannot be separated from their social, cultural and spiritual contexts. Indigenous health expert Carolyn Stephens believes “health for many indigenous peoples is not merely absence of ill health, but also a state of spiritual, communal, and ecosystem equilibrium and well-being.” When we approach indigenous health crisis from a holistic perspective, securing land rights becomes imperative.

Over centuries indigenous peoples have developed trusted remedies and traditional healing practices to pass down from generation to generation. Their remedies use plant food such as roots and seeds as well as animal food such as insects and honey. Many of the plants they use form the foundation of our modern medicines. Indigenous peoples' health is intimately linked to the health of their ecosystem, which is increasingly threatened by deforestation, mining, and other activities. When trees are cut down, forests are cleared for cattle ranching, indigenous peoples ability to access medicinal plants is compromised. Their ancient knowledge and wisdom on plants and their healing practices might lose forever. Whereas when indigenous communities have legal rights to their land, they can expel illegal loggers and miners, prohibit deforestation activities, and restore the ecosystem.

Two recent cases in Brazil also corroborate how securing land rights and having effective legal channels can improve indigenous peoples' well-being.

A study conducted by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation and Instituto Socioambiental shows that in some Yanomami villages 92% of Yanomami people suffer from mercury poisoning from illegal gold-mining in their territory. After using mercury to separate gold from other sediments, miners toss mercury into the rivers and streams. Water and fish became contaminated first. Indigenous people then drink and eat contaminated water and fish, resulting in irreversible health damage. Illegal mining takes place on Yanomami Reserves. The Yanomami people quickly detected illegal activities, sought out health professionals for assistance, and had the legal right to demand the government end the frequent invasion of illegal miners in their territory.

Gold-digging boats at Uraricoera River, Yanomami Indigenous Land, 2015. Photo Credit: Guilherme Gnipper | FUNAI

Yet the deterioration of physical health is not the only crisis indigenous peoples face. There is an invisible pain killing indigenous peoples silently, the pain of displacement.

Brazil’s indigenous peoples are committing suicide at a rate 22 times greater than their fellow citizens, and the Guarani-Kaiowa community suffers the most. These people are deeply spiritual. They search to live in a land without evil. They believe when people are mentally or physically ill, the evil spirits will catch them. They also perform daily rituals such as taking herbal remedies and using a protective leaf to wash their hair in order to keep the evil spirits away. The Guarani-Kaiowa once lived in forests the size of Germany. They used to hunt wild animals, practice traditional agriculture and do handicrafts. However, over the years, they were forced to move in order to clear land for farming, and to relocate closer and closer towards cities and mainstream societies. “The forests were razed, the wild animals they hunted disappeared, and the water sources were drained to irrigate plantations.”

Cattle ranching and industrial soy farming have taken over most of the land that was once Guarani-Kaiowa territory. Photo Credit: Stephanie Nolen. Source:

Indigenous leaders, shaman, and elders believe the deaths have to do with where and how they live. Their current home, between cattle ranches and fields of sugarcane, is not a sacred land, and they can’t do any rituals there. Violent attacks and blatant discrimination, loss of cultural identity and home, as well as alcoholism resulting from proximity to the city eventually pushed Guarani-Kaiowa people over the edge.

Securing land rights cannot substitute for a comprehensive indigenous health care system including health professionals, equipment, transportation and basic assistance, but demarcation of land takes a broader cultural, communal and spiritual perspective to address the health needs of indigenous peoples and the local worlds in which they live.

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