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Cecilia Cahum Cahum and her niece Melany Ariana Cahum Chan hang out at the pond near their Maya community in the jungle, only a short drive and a hike away from bustling Tulum, Mexico. Cecilia Cahum Cahum and her niece Melany Ariana Cahum Chan hang out at the pond near their Maya community in the jungle, only a short drive and a hike away from bustling Tulum. Molly Ferrill

Pandemic isolation brought unexpected benefits for some Maya communities

Rural areas were a refuge from a virus that disproportionately killed indigenous people

Cecilia Cahum Cahum and her family have lived in a traditional Maya community in the jungle since she was a small child. Located only an hour’s drive from Tulum, the community has made a living from tourism for years, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, things changed.

In a meeting between five Maya communities, Cecilia’s family and others decided to isolate themselves completely from the outside world. “Since we know how to farm and survive in the jungle, we decided to protect ourselves from the virus that way,” she explained.

Cecilia and her brothers gave up their jobs in the city and joined the community where, for six months, no one was allowed to come or go for any reason. They cultivated beans, squash, corn, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables, and raised chickens. None of the community members came down with COVID.

When they emerged from isolation, over 1,000 people had died of the virus in their state of Quintana Roo — and indigenous people who caught it had been hit the hardest.

Cecilia's brother Victor Facundo Cahum Cahum farms the land every day in the jungle, often finding birds' nests and other signs of wildlife surrounding the community.
Cecilia’s brother Victor Facundo Cahum Cahum farms the land every day in the jungle, often finding birds’ nests and other signs of wildlife surrounding the community. Molly Ferrill

Stretching from Cancún to Tulum, Mexico’s Riviera Maya depends heavily on tourism. Mexico remained open to air travel throughout the pandemic, with no testing, quarantine, or vaccine requirements, and over 35 million international tourists visited the country between January 2020 and August 2021. In the period from January to August in 2021, more international tourists flew into Cancún than any other Mexican city, according to Tourism Ministry data.

Alarming statistics began to surface early in the pandemic. Many people working in tourism in the Riviera Maya caught the virus, but the fatality rate for those who tested positive for coronavirus in Mexico was roughly 50% higher for indigenous people than it was for the rest of the population during the first year of the pandemic, according to analysis by the data journalism organization Data Crítica.

Health inequities and financial and social barriers were all found to be contributing factors; studies linked this disproportionate fatality rate to the presence of comorbidities like high blood pressure and diabetes in the indigenous population, likely due to a lower quality diet which put them at higher risk for COVID-related complications.

Risk of exposure was also especially high for many indigenous people in the Riviera Maya; the highest COVID death toll of indigenous people in Mexico was registered in the Cancún area, where many hold informal jobs in tourism. Some indigenous people like the members of Cecilia’s community, however, had the option and the necessary expertise to leave their jobs and return to a rural lifestyle, a choice that illuminated the community’s strengths and knowledge and may have saved lives.

Cecilia's niece Dayami Xareni Cahum Dzul plays with a dog at home in their community.
Cecilia’s niece Dayami Xareni Cahum Dzul plays with a dog at home in their community. Molly Ferrill

According to Rommel Santiago Salazar Perera, a Maya nurse and farmer, isolation from the increased COVID risk presented by the tourism industry isn’t the only reason that indigenous people might be better off in rural areas than they are in the cities of the Riviera Maya. Returning to a traditional farming lifestyle is a health advantage in itself because farmers harvest and consume their own produce, which provides better nutrition than an average indigenous family might be able to afford in the city.

Salazar himself benefits from a government program called Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), through which many indigenous and non-indigenous farmers are paid for their farming work and are provided with fruit, spice, and timber trees. Jesús Ariel Suaste Salazar, an indigenous regional leader of the Sembrando Vida program, said the project has allowed many indigenous people in the areas surrounding the Riviera Maya to live in the countryside during the COVID-19 pandemic and fully support themselves through farming.

Unlike Cecilia’s community, some of these indigenous farmers did not isolate completely during the pandemic, and some did catch COVID-19, but Suaste said that due to the overall superior health of the rural indigenous community, many of those who got sick were able to recover easily at home. The spread of the virus was also slower, since farmers in rural areas had more space to isolate themselves from family members than those living in cramped conditions in the city.

While the role of indigenous people in the typical tourism model of the Riviera Maya has historically placed them in low-income, high-COVID exposure roles that likely contributed to the high number of indigenous deaths in the area, indigenous-led ecotourism initiatives are now surfacing that capitalize on their own culture and knowledge of the natural world. The initiatives have allowed these communities to benefit more directly and control their own health risks and safety during the pandemic.

Jesús Ariel Suaste Salazar and his wife pick limes in their garden a few hours away from the Riviera Maya. They both got sick with Covid early in the pandemic, but they were able to recover at home. They attribute their quick recovery to their eating a healthy traditional Maya diet of fruits and vegetables from their farm, which is supported in part through the Mexican government's Sembrando Vida program.
Jesús Ariel Suaste Salazar and his wife pick limes in their garden a few hours away from the Riviera Maya. They both got sick with COVID early in the pandemic, but they were able to recover at home. They attribute their quick recovery to their eating a healthy traditional Maya diet of fruits and vegetables from their farm, which is supported in part through the Mexican government’s Sembrando Vida program. Molly Ferrill

Although Cecilia’s family was able to survive on subsistence farming during their isolation, they now hope to increase their income and capitalize on the booming tourism industry nearby as pandemic risks subside. They are currently working to further develop an ecotourism program they had started before the pandemic; she and her family are welcoming tourists into their community to learn about their way of life in the jungle, spend time in nature, and taste the traditional food grown and prepared there.

The family also plans to expand their sustainable farm: “We haven’t forgotten how to live the traditional way, and we feel that it is important to keep the farm going,” explained Cecilia’s brother, Victor Facundo Cahum Cahum.

Cecilia’s family is part of a larger movement to establish successful indigenous-led ecotourism programs across the region. The indigenous cooperative “Community Tours Sian Ka’an” takes tourists out on boats to learn about the ecosystem and wildlife species in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO world heritage site near Tulum. Tourists can also learn about Maya culture through visits to archaeological sites within the reserve.

The cooperative was able to continue the tours for much of the pandemic with low risk of COVID since their activities are outdoors and workers can keep their distance from tourists. Roman Caamal Coh, general manager of the cooperative, said he hopes this type of ecotourism can continue to grow and empower indigenous people. With increasing interest from tourists in nature- and culture-based experiences, indigenous-run ecotourism programs are now meeting a growing demand.

A member of the Maya ecotourism group "Community Tours Sian Ka'an" drives a tourist boat through the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. The reserve holds special meaning for the local Maya community; its name means "where the sky is born.” Tourism slowed early in the pandemic, but has now picked back up, providing an income for the indigenous tour guides.
A member of the Maya ecotourism group “Community Tours Sian Ka’an” operates a tourist boat in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. The reserve holds special meaning for the local Maya community; its name means “where the sky is born.” Tourism slowed early in the pandemic, but has now picked back up, providing an income for the indigenous tour guides. Molly Ferrill

It remains to be seen what will happen in the Riviera Maya as the pandemic continues to unfold. The spread of COVID-19 has revealed underlying inequities in communities across the world, and in the touristic Riviera Maya it has brought to light a need to address social and health justice for indigenous people, many of whom were heavily impacted by the virus before the option to vaccinate became available.

However, the pandemic has also revealed great strengths in the indigenous community in Mexico, such as the ability of many local indigenous people to protect themselves by returning to a traditional rural lifestyle as Cecilia’s community did, and it has helped spark the development of new indigenous-run projects in the region. Many leaders of indigenous-led ecotourism programs hope to carry their businesses into the post-pandemic world, empowering an indigenous population that has faced marginalization in the past.

They believe that the indigenous connection to nature and the land can contribute to the health, safety, and prosperity of local communities as well as that of the broader tourism industry as they begin to lead projects that capitalize on their own unique set of knowledge and experience.

During tours of the community, Cecilia's mother Aurelia Cahum Balam shows visitors how she makes traditional Maya meals with fresh ingredients from the farm.
During tours of the community, Cecilia’s mother Aurelia Cahum Balam shows visitors how she makes traditional Maya meals with fresh ingredients from the farm. Molly Ferrill

 In line to receive the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, Dulce Maria explained that a woman had stopped by her house on her way to Cancun to get vaccinated, and she decided to go too. Dulce Maria had been isolated in her house in a rural area during the entire pandemic, and was excited to be able to start leaving the house safely again.
In line to receive the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, Dulce María explained that a woman had stopped by her house on her way to Cancún to get vaccinated, and she decided to go too. Dulce María had been isolated in her house in a rural area during the entire pandemic, and was excited to be able to start leaving the house safely again. Molly Ferrill

Laysa Guadalupe Yam Un sits in the room where she quarantined from her family when she came down with Covid. She was able to recover quickly at home, and none of her family members caught the virus. Laysa is a Maya farmer and a beneficiary of the Sembrando Vida program, and lives a few hours outside of the Riviera Maya.
Laysa Guadalupe Yam Un sits in the room where she quarantined from her family when she came down with COVID. She was able to recover quickly at home, and none of her family members caught the virus. Laysa is a Maya farmer and a beneficiary of the Sembrando Vida program, and lives a few hours outside the Riviera Maya. Molly Ferrill

Gustavo Cruz Mendez, María Montejo Días, and Isaias Altunar Hernandez all come from different indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico, and moved to the Riviera Maya for work. They all feel proud of their heritage, and speak different indigenous languages. They say that many indigenous people feel ashamed to speak with them in their indigenous languages due to the prejudice that is held by many against indigenous people in the country. Gustavo and Maria got sick with Covid early in the pandemic, and recovered with the help of traditional medicinal plants grown in their own yard combined with mainstream medicine.
Gustavo Cruz Mendez, María Montejo Días, and Isaias Altunar Hernandez all come from different indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico, and moved to the Riviera Maya for work. They all feel proud of their heritage, and speak different indigenous languages. They say that many indigenous people feel ashamed to speak with them in their indigenous languages due to the prejudice that is held by many against indigenous people in the country. Gustavo and María got sick with COVID early in the pandemic, and recovered with the help of traditional medicinal plants grown in their own yard combined with mainstream medicine. Molly Ferrill

 

Cecilia's brother Efrain Cahum explains the rural lifestyle of the community to a group of tourists from France soon after the reopening of the community for ecotourism.
Cecilia’s brother Efrain Cahum explains the rural lifestyle of the community to a group of tourists from France soon after the reopening of the community for ecotourism. Molly Ferrill

This project was funded by the National Geographic Society.

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