Journalism from the center of the world

Indigenous peoples said they have the organizational, social and knowledge capacity to safeguard the forest, as they have done for millennia. Photo: Edilma Prada Céspedes

Special correspondent for AGENDA PROPIA in collaboration with SUMAÚMA. In Sharm el-Sheikh.

Indigenous groups in the Amazon have demanded a more central role in tackling the climate crisis by calling for territorial rights over an additional 100 million hectares of land and urging the United Nations to stage a future conference in the world’s biggest rainforest.

During the two weeks of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, COP27, based in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the representatives of first peoples warned that current “Eurocentric” approaches to restoring nature and stabilising the climate were failing and a new approach was urgently needed.

“Seventeen percent of the forests in the Amazon basin has disappeared and if we reach 20%, the Amazon biome will not have the capacity to self-regenerate on its own,” warned Harold Rincón Ipuchima, an indigenous Tikuna, coordinator of Climate Change and Biodiversity from the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, COICA, an entity that represents 511 indigenous peoples.

COICA proposes that of the 250 million “vacant” lands in the biome, collective titles of 100 million hectares be given to indigenous communities. “Once that ownership, that tenure is guaranteed, the indigenous knowledge systems will by themselves regulate governance and the protection of biodiversity,” he said.

The Amazon’s global role was repeatedly emphasised at the international event. As well as being the world’s most important terrestrial carbon sink, covering 7.4 million square kilometers, this vast biome is also the largest river basin in the world containing about 20% of the world’s surface fresh water.

Harold warned that if action is not taken now and quickly, “the processes of savannization and subsequent desertification of the Amazon will continue, putting the lives of thousands of species of fauna and flora, communities and knowledge at risk, then we are telling the governments of the the world and the Amazonian governments that we need to protect the remaining 80% of Amazonian biodiversity.”

For the indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara, who was recently elected to Brazil’s congress, it is essential that Amazon countries move forward with the demarcation of lands to “secure and protect our future and the life of the world.” Sonia added that in her country there is “a denial that indigenous communities were original dwellers in some lands,” which has caused territories to be invaded and destroyed.

This call for land rights also seeks the protection of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation. One of the voices that joined the request for legal certainty was that of the leader Tabea Casique Coronado, of the Ashéninka people, of the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (Aidesep). “We have been fighting with our governments for 100% territorial security, in addition to a guarantee of territory, it is also urgent to protect our brothers in isolation and in initial contact,” he said.

At a state level, Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia, which together account of 52% of the world’s tropical rainforests, formally launched a partnership to jointly lobby for conservation and more international funding. “There is no planetary security without a protected Amazon,” Brazil’s new president-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told a packed audience of delegates. He has promised his incoming government will aim at zero deforestation, establish a new indigenous ministry, and use the power of the state to evict illegal miners, loggers and land grabbers who have invaded indigenous land.

Indigenous communities demand participation in climate finance and justice. Delegates from Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru told the conference their ancestral territories have become corridors for drug trafficking, organized crime and deforestation. They say their sacred forests are “slowly dying out” as a result of destructive incursions into their land.

“Mercury used in mining contaminates children and mothers in our communities,” said Marciely Ayap Tupari, secretary of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon, COIAB. “There are also many invasions by illegal loggers.”

While COP27 was underway in Egypt, a Yanomami woman was murdered in Brazil. According to the organization Survival, “Two men shot at a group of indigenous Yanomami who were camping in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima. The mother of a baby, received a bullet to the head and died on the spot.” The Yanomami have been persecuted and their lands invaded by illegal miners on both the Brazilian and Venezuelan sides of the border.

“The Yanomami are being forced to leave (their communities) because they do not have social assistance, because their territories are being invaded, mainly by miners…That is why they are going out to the cities, to the streets. And people in the cities don’t want indigenous people and for that reason they attack them. There is a lot of discrimination,” said Joenia Wapichana, an indigenous woman who was recently elected to the Brazilian Congress. At COP27, she called for respect for the lives of indigenous women, who are keepers of ancestral knowledge.

The case of the Yanomami, in Brazil, is just one of the tragedies faced by Amazonian indigenous peoples, Colombia is the most lethal country for forest guardians. According to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies, Indepaz, 25 defenders have been assassinated in Amazonian territories in Columbia and more than 160 in the country as a whole.

“The armed actors have never left the Amazon despite the peace agreement (signed in 2016 by the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla), the armed actors stayed, there is a reconfiguration especially in the framework of drug trafficking, of illegal mining, of other illegal economic possibilities that the Amazon region presents”, said Julio César López, an indigenous Inga, representative of the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon, OPIAC. He called for more spaces to be opened up for dialogue and participatory politics so that communities could have more peace.

One of the challenges for those trying to save the Amazon is to guarantee sufficient financing to restore forests and prevent further deforestation. The issues of mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage have been central themes of the COP27 negotiations.

Indigenous peoples are concerned insufficient resources are reaching the communities directly. A 2021 study by the Rainforest Foundation Norway noted only 1% of the money for forest management was deposited with indigenous organizations and local communities in countries where there is tropical forest. Another report this year by the Forest Tenure Funders Group revealed that only 7% has been paid of the $1.7 billion in funding that was promised for indigenous people’s at COP27 by by governments and private organizations. Of this, more than 50% was delivered to intermediaries.

Indigenous organisations demand the funds go directly to first peoples. “They are the true experts and protectors of the forest,” said José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, General Coordinator of COICA. “Financing is a necessity. Any technology to save the forest is very expensive. Energy, which is not fossil fuel, such as solar power, is super expensive. Resources are needed for that, and also to guarantee better conditions for our people.”

One of the proposals for economic support and recognition of the forest management role of indigenous peoples was made by the president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro. “We must save the pillars of the planet’s climate. The Amazon forest is one. Colombia will grant $200 million annually for 20 years to save the Amazon rainforest. We await the global contribution”, said the Colombian president. He also called for the unity of Amazon countries.

Coica’s Gregorio supported Petro’s initiative and said he was encouraged by recent moves by Brazil and Venezuela to participate, and by France to support the participation of indigenous peoples. However he warned that many powerful countries have been lukewarm. “The United States, China, Russia, a large part of the The European Union, with the exception of Norway, Denmark and Germany, have not shown real changes,” he said.

International foundations said some organisations would need to build an architecture for the transfer of funds. “If you flood a community with a lot of money, what will happen is that if there is not a strong and transparent institutional architecture, it could be a negative thing rather than a positive thing because it could cause conflicts between people,” said Avecita Chicchón, director of programs for the Andes-Amazon Initiative at the Moore Foundation.

The United Nations reported that of the $12 billion committed in Glasgow to protect and restore forests during the 2021-2025 period, $2.67 billion have already been spent, and that public and private donors have committed another $4.5 billion dollars since COP26.

Indigenous peoples said they have the organizational, social and knowledge capacity to safeguard the forest, as they have done for millennia. Many call for a new way of doing things.

Indigenous communities say their sacred forests are “slowly dying out” as a result of destructive incursions into their land. Photo: Edilma Prada Céspedes

Despite restrictions on peaceful process at COP27, forest peoples joined demonstrations and raised their voices in debate, protest and songs. Among their demands was for an international climate conference in Amazonian territory.

The United Nations has said the next conference, COP28, will be in the United Arab Emirates in 2023, then COP29 is scheduled in Eastern Europe in 2024, followed by COP30 in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2025.

Indigenous groups say that a 2025 COP in an Amazonian country would help the world to understand the magnitude of the damage and the need to sustain and defend the biome.

“Global warming policies cannot be centralized from a European perspective in the discussion. The particularities of the seven regions of the world must be understood, and one of those regions is the Amazon basin, which holds the balance for all of mother nature”, said Leonidas Iza, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie).

Petro of Columbia has proposed an Amazonian COP. Lula, the president-elect of Brazil, has said a COP should be held in his country. “Brazil cannot be isolated as it has been in the last four years,” he said, referring to the government of Jair Bolsonaro.

This proposal was supported by many different political groups, defenders of biomes and indigenous peoples. Marina Silva, a former Minister of the Environment of Brazil, recalled Latin America has been the scene of important summits in favor of the environment, “in Brazil one of the biodiversity conventions was developed”, she said, referring to the Earth Summit of 1992 and its follow-up in 2012. She said it was time for the world to return again to South America.

“We support President Lula’s call. Brazil has once again entered the biodiversity protection arena. Brazil, as a mega diverse country, mega forest, with the largest amount of water resources, the largest amount of mineral resources, the most diverse culture with the indigenous peoples, the traditional populations of quilombolas, of fishermen, we will be supporting the initiatives”, added Marina.

Note. Agenda Propia‘s participation in COP27 was supported by the Pulitzer Center, its Amazonía Lab initiative, and the Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund.

Translated and edited by Jonathan Watts

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