UN Climate summit: Amazonian indigenous peoples make a stand

Amazonian indigenous people call on world leaders at the UN climate talks to follow their example in prioritising sustainability and care for the environment in the face of climate change.

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The 19th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), more commonly referred to as COP19, began in Warsaw, Poland on 11th November. Not that many people seem to be taking much notice; international attention on the conference has been pitiful so far, continuing a trend that has been seen over the last few years as climate change has slipped down the political agenda, with economic woes in the Western world in particular taking primacy. This has been coupled with the fallout from the shambles that was COP15, held in Copenhagen in 2009, where world leaders and delegates failed to come up with a concrete agreement on a post-Kyoto framework for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. The apparent ridicule of the COP meetings may even have been elevated to new heights this year, as the Polish hosts have taken the unusual step of using the conference to promote their coal industry, running a parallel “International Coal & Climate Summit” and allowing leading coal and heavy industry companies to be the main sponsors of COP19.

However, there is certainly one social group that will always take the issue of global climate change deadly seriously, and which will never give up on speaking out about the dangers of inaction on climate change: the world’s indigenous peoples, and especially those of the Amazon basin and Latin American forests. A short while ago I wrote about indigenous peoples in Central America warning of the urgent need to combat climate change, and how indigenous peoples are often among the most vulnerable socio-economic groups when it comes to facing adverse climatic changes resulting from global warming. Now, with COP19 underway and leaders and ministers from around the world (well, some of them) gathered in Warsaw, once again an influential indigenous organisation from Latin America has spoken out about the issue, urging the rest of the world to stop messing around with meaningless grandiloquence, and to begin real action to bring down carbon emissions and show more concern for the future of the global environment.

Amazonia and its inhabitants: one of climate change’s major frontiers

The Coordinadora de Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA – Coordinator of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin), based in the Ecuadorean capital Quito, is as the name suggests a conglomerate of various indigenous organisations hailing from the Amazon basin, with communities represented including those from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Surinam, and Venezuela. Some of its members have been in attendance at the climate summit in Warsaw, and on Wednesday 13th November they hosted a side-event in which the organisation’s economic coordinator, Juan Carlos Jintiach from Ecuador’s Shuar indigenous ethnic group, stressed COICA’s demand that indigenous land and territorial rights be respected, upheld, and strengthened. This plea comes in the context of a growing policy consensus that views indigenous control of forests as being vital to ensuring that they stay intact and continue to serve vital environmental services, such as carbon sequestration; vast rainforests such as the Amazon serve to convert and store carbon dioxide while releasing oxygen, earning the Amazon the nickname “the lungs of the world”.

This role of the Amazon in contributing to the balancing act of the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas concentration, and therefore the duty of humans all over the world to protect it and other rainforests, was one highlighted by Jintiach and the rest of the COICA leadership. “The Amazon is under a lot of pressure, it is unwell”, claimed Jintiach. “But we have the chance to save it and we have to do that; it is essential for the planet”. He also explained to his audience that the impacts from climatic change and variability were already making themselves felt among his people, given that it has brought about “the loss of ecosystems, it has caused the disappearance of species of flora and fauna, and affected food resources”.

While these symptoms are typical of those projected to be found in many more parts of the world if urgent action to prevent climate change is not taken soon, they appear to be affecting the lifestyles of traditional indigenous communities in the Amazon more than elsewhere. This is due both to the scale of changes in rainfall and weather patterns being seen across the Amazon basin (as they are in the Andean regions of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, which form the western frontier to the Amazon and where many of the basin’s rivers have their source), and to the fact that the lifestyles of the region’s indigenous communities have much closer ties to the land and to local ecosystems. This means that if these ecosystems and seasonal patterns are affected and begin to ‘behave’ in ways not previously experienced by these peoples, traditional methods of hunting and cultivation are thrown off course.

COICA members at the Climate talks in Warsaw

Deeds, not words

However, the COICA leader reiterated one of the principal complaints of environmentalists and indigenous peoples the world over fighting for unified, global action on climate change: it is absolutely essential for us to go well beyond mere “declarations” – as Jintiach put it – and great impressive-looking international summits. “Now is the time for immediate action”, continued Jintiach, who pointed out that efforts carried out so far by the international community to try and bring global warming and carbon emissions to a halt have failed.

In his view, national governments the world over, along with major multinational companies, are still those who are largely responsible for the environmental degradation that contributes to these changes in the global environment. “However”, he insisted, “we the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, through our ancestral knowledge and our worldview that is tied to Mother Nature, have the alternative proposal that can be a part of the solution”. In saying this, he refers to the traditional lifestyle followed by many indigenous communities in the Amazon as well as in other parts of Latin America and the world, which has developed over the centuries to work in harmony with natural ecosystems, with a central philosophy that lends itself to sustainability and respect for the natural world. “If this ancestral wisdom were the policy of the world’s States and were to be applied, the world would change”, Jintiach assured his audience.

But for this to happen, COICA stress that the rights they demand with relation to legal ownership of their territories must be met. COICA have come up with a plan, dubbed the “Indigenous REDD+ Alternative” as a response to the UN’s initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, through which they hope to press their claims to hold decisive legal control of vast swathes of Amazon rainforest, thus preventing the advance of mining, logging, and large-scale farming interests, often the principal cause of widespread deforestation in the Amazon basin. Indigenous peoples have largely shunned the UN initiative, claiming it ignores the rights of indigenous peoples who inhabit forested areas to carry on with their traditional lifestyles, and while their alternative proposal is still in its infancy, pilot projects are being carried out and COICA hope to present detailed reports into its progress at next year’s COP summit, to be held in the Peruvian capital of Lima.

“When they give us those rights over our territories, we’ll be able to put our philosophy into action, putting an end to the commercial exploitation of forests and the presence of large international companies”, claims Jintiach. To all those who are concerned for the future of the planet, and who recognise the crucial role that indigenous peoples can play in the fight against climate change, it has to be hoped that people start to take note of the plans and pleas put forward by COICA in Warsaw.

A satellite image showing deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon