If you want to protect the forests, you have to protect the people

If you want to protect the forests, you have to protect the people

International support is growing for the world’s forest defenders
Photo: Dwayne Reilander
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April 26, 2019

Indigenous forest defenders are constantly putting their bodies on the line to preserve the world’s most biodiverse and climatically crucial jungles. They face an uphill battle against powerful opponents-and the odds are stacked against them at every turn.

But the situation is changing now that indigenous rights have been so thoroughly proven to be the most effective pathway to preserve the world’s ecosystems.

We saw it all too clearly at this year’s United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues’ –particularly at the Side Event on April 23rd, 2019, which featured many high profile figures and stakeholders including American actor and activist Alec Baldwin; Canadian honorary minister to the Crown on Indigenous Issues, Carolyn Bennett; UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous issues, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz; General Coordinator of the indigenous Amazonian organization COICA, Gregio Diaz Mirabel; and other important diplomatic figures, indigenous leaders and top environmental organizations.

The UNPFII 2019 Panel on ‘Forest Defenders: New Threats and Responses’. Photo: Julie Koch (@julie2300koch)

“They are putting their lives on the line,” said Patricia Gualinga from the Kichwa community of Sarayaku in Ecuador. Day in and day out, forest defenders are sacrificing themselves to protect their territories from continual encroachment; but their strong sense of duty isn’t just aimed at their own communities. As Galinga explained, forest defenders also have a strong sense of duty to humanity’s continued existence. Indeed, they are fighting to protect the rest of a planet that relies on these massive air purifiers–and they face killings, torture, jail, prosecutions and many other threats because of it.

“Every year we see more and more land defenders killed,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, referring to the report she released to the Human Rights Council in July 2018, after gathering and analyzing data from 70 written submissions she received from 2017. “There were 312 human rights defenders confirmed murdered, with 67% of them indigenous land defenders.”

Most of these murders were concentrated in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Philippines, but this represents just the tip of the iceberg; many murders go unreported, are hidden or lost in the corners of corruption.

“This is especially worrying and real for us, as President Bolsanaro has said that he would not let even one centimetre of land to indigenous peoples,” said Sonja Guajajara, National Coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB).

Sônia Bone Guajajara on her way to speaking at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the Forest Land Defenders Event. Photo Credit: WECAN International/Teena Pugliese.

Hailing from the Guajajara tribe, Guajajara comes from the same tribe as the famous ‘Guardians of the Amazon’ or ‘Guajajara Guardians’, a group defending neighboring vulnerable uncontacted tribes and the last patches of green land from illegal destruction.

“We patrol, we find the loggers, we destroy their equipment and we send them away. We’ve stopped many loggers. It’s working,” said a member from the Guardians of the Amazon in May 2018. However, this does come with eminent danger. A couple of months later in August, the body of Jorginho Guajajara, a member of the group, was found near a river with his neck broken and almost dislocated in a similar way loggers have killed other Guajajara peoples. In 2016, six members of the tribe were brutally dismembered.

Carbon Sinks and Livelihoods

Even with the risks, there are more than a few good reasons forest defenders continue to monitor, map out and defend their lands.

Aside from the fact that guaranteeing indigenous land rights and forest management has been shown time and again to offer more biodiverse forests with higher carbon storage levels than any other conservation effort, the world’s rainforests function as carbon sinks that absorb the world’s fossil fuels. They are sanctuaries for species, regulators of global precipitation, air purifiers for the entire planet, and vital sources of food and medicine for over a billion people.

Photo by David Riaño Cortés from Pexels

Protecting rainforests are also vital if we are going to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees threshold–a fact that is being recognized by the 30% by 2030 initiative, a global effort to preserve at least a third of the world’s forests before the year 2030; as well as the effort from the scientific community, ‘A Global Deal for Nature’. Unfortunately, these goals do not put enough attention toward the protection of indigenous land rights, which are a cost-effective, efficient and proven method of guaranteeing that this mandate is achieved.

“Those new conservation and climate bodies need to incorporate indigenous peoples. $1 billion was given to preserve 30% by 2030, however we would have achieved this 30% if we simply implemented indigenous rights across 7 countries,” said Andy White, Coordinator of Rights and Resources Initiatives (RRI).

Just as the frustration mounted in the conference room, much money and funds get pooled in various places, with little actions coming from it… while the clock continues to tick.

Currently, many countries have some form of law protecting indigenous land rights, however due to their lack of ratification, they mostly serve as aspirational documents that are never truly implemented.

If forest defenders got their way and their land rights were recognized, over 200 million hectares of land would be back in indigenous hands, and the 30% by 2030 would be mandate met instantly.

A Community App

The dire needs of these forest defenders and the requirement of their protection has attested to the high-level meeting that dedicated itself to “defend the defenders” as said by Carole Excell, Acting Director of ‘World Resources Institute’s’ Environmental Democracy Practice.

The ‘Community App’, due to be released some time this year, is a joint initiative being put together by the ‘Environmental Investigation Agency’ and a Romanian software company. It takes advantage of the GPS technology contained in smartphones to live report and track illegal trespassing, logging, mining and abuses against forest defenders and indigenous people, bypassing a difficult, inefficient and corrupt line to the government.

“This allows the community to be empowered and see exactly what is happening,” said Alexander Von Bismarck, Executive Director of EIA, who emphasizes that the app let’s indigenous peoples manage their territories in a manner that would facilitate its presentation to governments.

Exposé Report

As abuses are carried out so agribusiness, extractive industries and fossil fuel companies can get access to the land, a scattered trail of secrecy, corruption, shrouded money flows and ambiguous orders smooth the way. To stop this from happening, Amazon Watch has released an exposé report, Complicity in Destruction, that lists all the companies paying and supporting businesses and individuals financing deforestation.

“If you didn’t know who they were before, well you will know them now,” said Leila Salazar-López, Executive Director of Amazon Watch.

Already working in the midst of morally defunct business practices is the long list of reputed Canadian mining and oil companies: some of the messiest and most dangerous ‘opponents’ to environmental defenders abroad.

This was acknowledged by Canadian Honorary Minister of Crown–Indigenous Relations, Carolyn Bennett, who underlined Canada’s efforts to enhance corporate social responsibility in its extractive sector.

“We want Canadian businesses to behave abroad,” she stated, emphasizing strides within the nation towards co-management of national parks with indigenous environmental guardians and her recent return from a meeting that explored best practices to refine Canada’s foreign commitment of its industries.

Though the results of this effort still need to be analyzed, the Environment Commissioner of Canada revealed deep gaps of information and responsibility in the government earlier this month.

“When environmental effects were found, there was no requirement on anybody’s part to actually have to do anything,” said Commissioner Julie Gelfand. “Nobody actually seems to have to deal with the issue.”

The irresponsibility of certain government figures and industry heads has dumbfounded many indigenous defenders.

“We are trying to save at least half of the Amazon!,” intonated Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, general coordinator of ‘COICA’. “To the people of the fossil fuel industry; it is your world too! It is the world that needs to be saved and protected!”

Safe Sanctuary

The ‘Interfaith Rainforest Initiative’ would like to close another gap by providing safe sanctuaries to defenders whose lives are threatened.

“Tropical rainforests are a blessing, a treasure and sacred gift,” said Reverend Fletcher Harper, Executive Director of GreenFaith, “And everywhere we go, we find one thing very clear. If you want to protect tropical rainforests, you must protect indigenous peoples.”

Benki Piyako, shaman of the Ashaninka peoples, took the idea even further when he opened the session. Pleading that everyone behave with the same spirit as forest defenders, he commented:

“We [all] need to recognize ourselves as guardians of the forests, of the earth, the lands, the waters, and that we protect all lives,” he said. “This world is a spiritual world of values. And as we indigenous people have been fighting for thousands of years to protect the earth, I want to tell you here that we shouldn’t destroy the world.”

Although much still has to be done from all people around the world to actually live in a sustainably prosperous environment for our perpetual wellbeing, frontline defenders are fiercely holding on to what they can for everyone across the planet.

To be honest, considering the sacrifice and work of forest defenders, the high profile figures we saw at the conference were never enough. They deserve a standing ovation–and more importantly, our full and unwavering support.

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