By: Jupta Itoewaki1, Casey Orozco-Poore1, Michelle Sunjoo Lee1, Gabriella Herrera1, Victor A. Lopez-Carmen2, Brendan Eappen2

The Wayana Peoples of the Amazon, Indigenous to Brazil, Suriname and French Guiana for 4,000 years, understand that water is essential to both life and spirit. As the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic rapidly spreads from North America down the Western hemisphere, the Wayana Peoples are in urgent need of respectful international partnerships to weather yet another pandemic.

Board of the Mulokot Foundation.

In the southeast of Suriname, Wayana villages of around 500 people live along the rivers shared with French Guiana. This forested community is led by Paramount Chief of the Wayana Indigenous, Ipomadi Pelenapin, a healer who provides medical care and spiritual guidance to hundreds of Wayana from multiple countries. Mulokot Foundation Chairperson and Wayana community leader Jupta Lilian Itoewaki describes Suriname “the greenest country in the world”. At 94.56% forest, Suriname is a vibrant green of primary land.

Wayana village Kawemhakan from the Sky. World Rainforest Movement.

Jupta explains, “For humans to be able to live well, a balanced relationship with the spirits is necessary…everything has a spirit, a soul.” The Mulokot Foundation is named after the master water spirit in the Wayana cosmovision, and before Western Christian influence, the Wayana lived in harmony with the natural and spiritual world. Oeloekanioe Itoewaki, Jupta’s Kuni (grandmother) believes that the Wayana’s contemporary problems stem from the damaged relationship between the Wayana and the Amazon’s natural spirits. 

Jupta Lilian Itoewaki: Southeast village leader of the Wayana Peoples of the Amazon, Suriname, Chairperson of the Mulokot Foundation and community representative within the United Nations & Harvard Medical School Indigenous Health Partnership.

This relationship began to splinter in the 16th century with the ingress of Dutch colonizers from the Northern coast searching for gold during “explorations”. Overseas resource extraction brought hundreds of waves of epidemics, wiping out the majority of Indigenous people within remote forested sanctuaries. The European community established control over the region through agricultural conquest and industrial extraction of sugar, cotton, and indigo, which were harvested by Africans abused by Dutch slave-owners. Then, between 1900 and 1950, 87.5% of the Wayana People of the Amazon were killed by influenza and tuberculosis. The Wayana People have since grown to 2500 people, in part due to Church missionaries who offered medicine from the capital and subsequently forbade and punished Indigenous cultural expression.

The tension between exploitation of land & cultural preservation remains today, as marginalized groups compete with foreign gold miners for land. Between 2000-2014, large-scale gold mining increased by 893%. In 2020, the European, Chinese, United States, Canadian-extracted Surinamese “gold rush” reaches its second decade. The internationally critiqued acid mine drainage from gold mining had devastated aquatic resources as heavy metals activate in acidic sulphur water, creating sediment which clogs riverbeds, collapses wildlife and renders water undrinkable. The Wayana are no longer able to safely drink water and eat traditional fish meals. To protect their bodies and minds from neurotoxic poisons, the Wayana People of the Amazon have been forced to cut ties with the staple cultural elements of their ways of life. 

Gold mining in Suriname from above. Image source: Jupta Lilian Itoewaki.

The issue of water safety has been set into high focus this year, as the Wayana community grapples with increased demand of medical supplies, and decreased supply of food and water due to border closures and travel restrictions. The Suriname government, condemned by the Organization for American States (OAS) for violating Wayana human rights, has responded to the global coronavirus pandemic by diverting medical resources to the capital of Paramaribo located seven days away by boat or 1.5 hours by plane from Jupta’s community. Moreover, international conservationist NGO regulations and Suriname laws prohibit Indigenous people from sustainably harvesting trees for boats and maintain impossibly high plane fuel prices. 

Wayana Peoples unloading belongings and supplies from a small local airplane. The Mulokot Foundation.

The international community must take immediate accountable action to empower the Wayana people to survive and self-determine their futures. 

Members of the Mulokot Foundation educating on water safety and Mercury contamination.

The Wayana do not have access to coronavirus testing, complicating their geographic intersections with Maroon (descendents of self-liberated Africans), Indigenous and Surinamese migrant communities searching for dangerous work mining gold along the river. So far, the international response has trained Brazillian and French “elite soldiers protecting the rainforest” carrying out “massive military operations to combat [illegal] miners”. Despite these claims, these are the very communities who search for sustainable methods of surviving within their ancestral home. 

Matawai Maroons write plans for a natural resource initiative to prevent gold mining incursions with ACT Suriname.

Matawi Maroons established a natural resource initiative to prevent unsustainable gold mining incursions in partnership with ACT Suriname. Likewise, future interests of the Wayana People include identifying native alternatives to soap detergent, sustainable harvesting of trees, and water cleansing techniques & technologies.

Clouded and acid-sedimented Suriname river with collapsing riverbeds and fallen trees. Image source: Jupta Lilian Itoewaki.
A dark, reflective Wayana river which has not been polluted by acid and ground ore sediment. Image source: Jupta Lilian Itoewaki.

In Wayana legend, “a great spirit of the forest is known as Meliimë, the jaguar. It is used by the Wayana as a sign for unity and for being invincible, in other words: together we stand strong.”

Nothing About Us Without Us!


The Wayana Peoples in collaboration with the UN Global Indigenous Youth Caucus (GIYC) and Harvard Medical School COVID-19 Student Response have prepared this information for an international call to action. To protect the vitality and diversity of human and environmental life, we need to shift time and resources to the global Indigenous population. To contribute to the Wayana during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit this fundraiser:


Blog by the Indigenous Youth Caucus