Amazon Native Leaders Assert Forest Stewardship for Climate Rescue


David Dudenhoefer, Environmental News Service (ENS)

Date of publication: 
8 December 2009

CHACLACAYO, Peru – As government government officials gather in Copenhagen to negotiate a global response to climate change, Amazonian indigenous leaders are concerned about how the resulting agreement will impact their people and ancestral lands.

Among the expected results of the two-week UN climate change conference is approval of an international regime for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, REDD, which holds both promise and challenges for the forest peoples.
New road slices into the Amazon rainforest near Manaus, Brazil. March 2008. (Photo by Julio Pantoja courtesy World Bank)

REDD will likely become a market system for wealthy governments, businesses and organizations to pay people in tropical countries to protect their forests, and thereby combat climate change. Scientists estimate that tropical deforestation is responsible for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

REDD advocates claim that curtailing tropical deforestation is a relatively quick and cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions, which would complement reductions from transportation, energy production and other greenhouse gas sources.

The Amazon Basin’s approximately 375 indigenous peoples would seem poised to benefit from such as system, since they have title, or legitimate claims to 25-30 percent of that region. Various studies have shown that they do a better job of conserving their forests than their non-indigenous compatriots.
Juan Carlos Jintiach (Photo by Minority Rights Group Intl.)

Yet Amazonian native leaders worry that climate change negotiators may ignore indigenous rights, or that governments, businesses, or conservation groups could use REDD as an excuse to take over their ancestral forests.

“With the current dynamic in the Amazon Basin, indigenous people are watching and weighing things. They’re worried, because in some areas, there is no guarantee for even their basic rights,” said Juan Carlos Jintiach, a Shuar Indian from Ecuador who is representing the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA for its name in Spanish) in Copenhagen.

Jintiach complained that the governments of some of the nine countries that share the Amazon Basin, and which will negotiate REDD agreements there, have recently violated native rights. He cited the police attack on an indigenous blockade in Bagua, Peru last June that left 24 dead (ENS, June 5) and the recent shooting death of a Shuar Indian in Ecuador during an Amazonian protest against that country’s mining and water laws.

Jintiach, who is one of dozens of indigenous leaders from around the world who have gathered in Copenhagen this week, said that their primary demand is for all REDD agreements and projects to comply with United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which mandates the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous people for projects that will affect them, or their territories.

Daniel Nepstad, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center and one of the architects of REDD, said that despite the dangers of abuse, it offers the best option for combating tropical deforestation and helping native peoples to benefit from their traditions of forest stewardship.
Daniel Nepstad (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)

“I think that this is the biggest opportunity by far for indigenous people around the world to find a voice and to have a more powerful global arena within which they can finally secure formal, legal rights to their ancestral lands,” Nepstad said. “Do we know exactly how to make that potential be fully realized? No. Are there huge risks and could there be perverse effects of REDD? Definitely. But that is the case with any bold proposal.”

He explained that though some REDD pilot projects have been poorly designed, and there has been insufficient consultation with indigenous people, the alternative to REDD is business as usual, which means the steady destruction of tropical forests and traditional cultures.

He said that future REDD projects should be required to meet a minimum set of nationally defined criteria and be linked to a global evaluation, so that even the failures help to strengthen the overall REDD system.

Nepstad is one of 18 authors of an article published last Friday in the journal “Science” called “The End of Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.” Its authors argue that REDD could strengthen recent gains in environmental law enforcement in Brazil, which holds approximately 60 percent of the Amazon wilderness, and is complemented by an incipient market trend of international buyers requiring proof that soy and beef are produced without deforestation.
Climate problems and promises belong to these children of the Amazon. (Photo by Jose Boa)

Nepstad said he is very encouraged by recent developments in Brazil, where he has worked for more than two decades. Five years ago, Brazil accounted for approximately 40 percent of all tropical deforestation, but since 2005, that destruction has decreased by 36 percent.

This is largely due to improved enforcement of environmental laws and the creation of new protected areas and indigenous territories, though it also a result of the global economic slowdown.

Nevertheless, a block of Brazilian legislators recently tried to weaken that country’s forestry code and a frontier mentality remains prevalent in the countryside, where land swindlers and violence against native peoples are serious problems.

Indigenous territories in the southern and eastern Amazon Basin are threatened by loggers, farmers, ranchers and hydroelectric projects, and native leaders who resist such encroachment often face violent reprisals.

According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 53 Indians were murdered in Brazil in 2008 alone.

“What has to happen for REDD to work is for there to be a shift toward legal forms of production. The illegal form, the violent component of frontier expansion has to be controlled and eventually eliminated. This would be a huge benefit for everyone, including indigenous people,” Nepstad said.

“Responsible, ethical land behavior has to be the norm,” he said. “We’re not there yet, but I definitely see a much stronger hand for indigenous people if the REDD initiative finds traction.”

Today, at the Bella Center in Copenhagen where the UN conference is taking place, the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change will hold a ceremony for conference leaders to cleanse their minds and spirits to engender clarity, compassion, strength and perseverance so that the negotiations will result in a binding commitment to Save Mother Earth.

Nikke Alex, 24, an Indigenous Environmental Network youth delegate from the Navajo Nation in Arizona said, “My community has been greatly affected my climate change. In my community, many do not have basic utilities like running water and electricity, and over the summer, the wells and springs dried up forcing my family and many others to drive over 30 miles for water. I’m happy to see other indigenous youth here to voice their concerns about decisions being made that will impact their future.”