Ameliorate our historic debt: help indigenous communities from Colombia against the COVID-19

4 min

Ameliorate our historic debt: help indigenous communities from Colombia against the COVID-19

Laura Becerra-Fajardo, alumna and researcher at UPF, tells us how they have developed a global solidarity initiative to bring personal protective equipment and visors based on 3D printing to indigenous communities in Colombia during COVID-19.

Since the European conquest of the Americas until recent times, the indigenous communities, their cosmovision’s and traditions have been ignored, threatened and unprotected. These communities safeguard natural resources and are constantly fighting against deforestation, which is driven mainly to extract natural resources and use the lands for coca farming. There are areas where some of these communities are settled, such as Wayuu communities in Guajira, were for the climate conditions, drinking and clean water and food provisions are inaccessible causing  undernourishment and health issues. Other communities or areas simply lack the traditions or the resources for basic hygiene elements, such as soap and toilet paper. In these difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to give them support to manage the emergency is evident.

Leticia, Colombia’s capital of the Amazon, is an example of a very vulnerable region for COVID-19. It has 50,000 inhabitants, almost 44% pertaining to 26 different indigenous communities. The city has one public and one private hospital, both lacking Intensive Care Units (ICU). There are 10 ventilators available, but enough oxygen supply for only 4 of them. The Colombian Amazon region has a “latent risk of infection along the borders of Brazil and Peru” especially because of the way the communities relate with each other: trading is their basis of living and they still rely on oral tradition.

The lockdown due to COVID-19 in Colombia was accelerated due to imported cases from Europe. In fact, the first three cases registered in the country were imported cases from Italy and Spain. On March 17th, the government established a voluntary lockdown, and one week later, on March 24th, the lockdown became mandatory. Few days before, the indigenous authorities of Amazonas had already decided to do the lockdown in their reservations, anticipating to what could happen on the tri-border between Brazil, Perú and Colombia. However, the coronavirus spread through the region, with more than 24,000 confirmed cases per million habitants, the highest rate in Colombia. This is 130% more than the rate of confirmed cases in Madrid (10,440 per 1 million habitants). The rate of deaths per million people in Amazonas is shocking: 873; higher than that of Cataluña. The visible face of this tragedy is Antonio Bolívar, an indigenous elder custodian of tribal stories, who became a star with the movie “The Embrace of the Serpent”. Antonio died on April 30th, in Leticia. Part of the oral tradition of his tribe died with him.

Antonio Bolivar indigenous colombia
Antonio Bolívar, indigenous elder custodian of tribal stories who died on April 30th due to COVID-19. Foto per Juan Pablo Gutierrez.

One day after the national lockdown was established in Colombia, three students of the Biomedical Engineering degree of Universitat Pompeu Fabra started printing face shields using the four 3D printers that the university owns. The students joined the CovidMakers community in Barcelona, helping to print hundreds of face shields distributed for free in hospitals and CAPs around the city. Several people were behind the idea to use the university’s 3D printers to fight the COVID-19, including Antoni Ivorra and myself. We then organized the “Enginy contra la COVID-19” awards for the Engineering students at UPF, with the objective of finding realistic and creative solutions to fight the disease. 

While doing this, I was contacted by a group of people who were concerned about the risks of COVID-19 in different weak regions of our country, especially indigenous communities. After several online meetings, Redspira Colombia was born. Redspira is a solidary network of multidisciplinary volunteers living in Colombia and abroad. Together we have built a strategic model to provide PPEs for free to hospitals and health workers of vulnerable regions such as Amazonas, Arauca, Chocó, Guajira, Buenaventura and Bogotá. We also provide food supplies for people that have not been able to work during the lockdown. 

Amazonas Indigenous community Redspira Colombia Fucai
Indigenous community leaders transporting the material provided by Redspira Colombia and Fucai to reservation in Amazonas.

In a very short time, we have been able to distribute more than 2000 complete PPEs, 200 packs of food supply, and 3500 face shields (500 of them based on 3D printing). We also joined efforts with Fundación Caminos de Identidad (Fucai) to send water and food provision to indigenous families in Guajira, with Makers Colombia, Red de Diseño Solidario and Lamiter to speed up the production of face shields, and with Saving the Amazon and Green Hope to reach more communities. 

Wayuu community Guajira medical revision
Wayuu community in Guajira during a medical revision.

The volunteers of Redspira are working from Australia, Germany, Spain and Colombia. We do fundraising, buy PPE, materials and food. We created a network of 3D printer owners that are producing face shields based on the CovidMakers design (Spain), and created a second network of volunteers to manually assemble the pieces. Currently, more than 30 volunteers around the globe are involved in the aim of Redspira.

Redspira 3D printers
Some volunteers of Redspira Colombia with their 3D printers for making face shields.

Europeans are starting to forget the terrible scenes seen in hospitals in Spain, Italy and China. However, the outbreak in Latin America has some time delay: it is expected that the peak of the outbreak reaches Colombia in July. That is why in Redspira Colombia we are working harder to reach more vulnerable regions, and to help indigenous communities to which we have a historic debt with. Today, it is our responsibility to protect them and give them support to manage the emergency.  

For more information and donations, please visit

  • Electronic Biomedical Postdoctoral Researcher in UPF. Alumni PhD in Information and Communication Technologies.

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