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The indigenous communities that predicted COVID-19

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For hundreds of years, indigenous groups have warned that destroying the environment leads to disease and adversely affects lives and culture. Is the world now ready to listen?

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The indigenous communities that predicted COVID-19

Levi Sucre Romero remembers hearing the news back in January about a novel coronavirus infecting people in China. “I honestly didn’t believe it would make it this far,” he said. “I felt like it was really far away.”

A member and leader of the Bribri, one of Costa Rica’s largest indigenous groups, Romero lives in Talamanca, a remote, mountainous region in the south of the country full of meandering rivers, dense jungle canopies and a near-constant drizzle of warm rain.

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Though the thatched-roof wooden homes of Talamanca Bribri, the group’s territory, are far removed from the country’s popular tourist hubs, Romero soon realised that it was only a matter of time until the virus reached them.

Levi Sucre Romero, a leader of Costa Rica's Bribri group, believes Covid-19 was caused by "a cocktail of bad practices" (Credit: Credit: Joel Redman/If Not Us Then Who?)
Levi Sucre Romero, a leader of Costa Rica’s Bribri group/bbc.com

Romero also realised something else: the virus, he believes, was unleashed by human greed and ill treatment of the planet. “We’re unbalancing the habitat of species, we’re cutting down trees, we’re planting monocultures, we’re filling the world with cities and asphalt and we’re using too many chemicals,” Romero said. “It’s a cocktail of bad practices.”

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Indigenous groups like Indonesia's Mentawai have urged the world to adopt a more sustainable way of coexisting with nature (Credit: Credit: Joel Redman/If Not Us Then Who?)
For years, indigenous groups like Indonesia’s Mentawai have urged the world to adopt a more sustainable way of coexisting with nature/bbc.com

Like Sars and Mers, two other recent, deadly coronaviruses, Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease that came from an animal. Evidence points to its likely origin in a bat, followed by a potential crossover into an intermediary species – possibly a pangolin – before transmission into humans at a wet market in Wuhan, China.

The Bribri live in a remote, mountainous region in the south of Costa Rica full of dense jungle and meandering rivers (Credit: Credit: Avalon/Getty Images)
The Bribri live in a remote, mountainous region in the south of Costa Rica full of dense jungle and meandering rivers/bbc.com

While Covid-19’s exact origins have yet to be pinpointed, overwhelming research shows that deforestation and commercial wildlife trade heighten the risk of zoonotic diseases that can potentially cause pandemics. And according to Romero, both are human activities that entail the destruction of nature.

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My people have cultural knowledge that says when Sibö, our God, created Earth, he locked up some bad spirits,” Romero said. “These spirits come out when we’re not respecting nature and living together.”

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