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OPINION: Rainforests are under siege but indigenous peoples could still save the Amazon

by José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal | COICA (Congress of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin)
Friday, 18 December 2020 16:01 GMT

Indigenous people from the Mura tribe show a deforested area in unmarked indigenous lands, inside the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil August 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Five years after Paris climate accord, with the Amazon at risk, we can help governments scale up solutions that can protect forests and stop pandemics

Five years ago, when leaders of 197 countries adopted the historic Paris Agreement on climate, they opened our rainforest homes for business. 

During negotiations, member states agreed to pull from the pact a brief reference to protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples, placing us instead in the toothless preamble.  

They should reconsider. 

Worldwide, rainforests are under siege like never before. We, the Indigenous Peoples of the nine countries of the Amazon, are putting our lives on the line to fight illegally set fires; legal and illegal mining operations; and the encroachment of cattle-raising ranches and plantations of soy, palm oil and timber plantations. 

COVID-19 has further decimated our peoples, particularly the elders whose priceless knowledge has been passed down from one generation to another. 

In the Brazilian Amazon alone, tens of thousands of illegal miners have flooded the territories of the Yanomami peoples, with no response from the government. Of the 30,000 Indigenous Peoples living in the territory, one-third are now thought to be infected with the COVID-19 virus.  

This pattern of behavior is repeated across the Amazon. Even in places where laws recognize our rights, enforcement by local and national authorities is lax. And then there are the places where the rule of law doesn’t reach, either by intent or for lack of resources. And yet, our territories remain the best defense against deforestation and landscape destruction. 

In Paris five years ago, as negotiators concluded the climate agreement, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who was then the UN Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, warned what would happen if our rights were left out of the agreement.

“The failure of the United Nations to protect indigenous peoples’ rights in a final agreement will fuel destruction of the forests and other ecosystems managed since time immemorial by indigenous peoples,” she said.  

Vicky was right.  

Five years after Paris, scientists have shown it was a mistake to remove our rights from the agreement. Their research reveals that we, the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, when armed with strong rights, manage our lands better than commercial ventures or conservation efforts.

We have lower rates of deforestation and forest carbon emissions. Most recently, in the Brazilian Amazon, Indigenous communities with full property rights experience significantly less deforestation than those right outside their borders.  

The Amazon lies at the heart of our culture, but it benefits us all - the water, the air, the very weather that climate change threatens to disrupt. Recommendations that our rights be secure are cited in recent papers issued by high-level intergovernmental panels on land use and climate changebiodiversity loss and pandemic risk.


high-level scientific panel is working on a plan for a bioeconomy in the Amazon, built on our traditional knowledge about the uses of the biodiverse riches of the rainforests.  

We now know that Indigenous Peoples in tropical forests are protecting ecosystems that, when damaged, can enable the release of dangerous pathogens and future pandemics like the one now holding all of us hostage. 

This gives us new hope that our rights will be recognized. Given what is at risk to human health and the global economy, what could possibly get in the way?  

The forces of opposition are strong and awareness of our value is late in coming. The prices of minerals, soy and other commodities are rising quickly, riding on news that COVID-19 vaccines are on their way. Historically, conservation scenarios rarely envision defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, defenders of  of the world’s remaining biodiversity.  

If our forests and our peoples are to survive, we need laws that stop demand for commodities from destroying our forests and harming our peoples. And we need the United Nations to give us a seat at the negotiating table at the UN conference in May of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN conference on climate in Glasgow, as rights holders.

And we need access to the massive funds that are being raised in the name of transforming humanity’s relationship to nature. We are that change - we are the transformation you seek.  

We are tired of promises that go nowhere and lies that tell us help is coming. We know firsthand what science is showing: Voluntary commitments do not work.

A new study conducted by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) finds that more than 1.65 billion Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and Afro-descendants live in the world’s most biodiverse regions and protect the areas that are richest in biodiversity. We have customary land rights to at least half the planet. Millions of us would be harmed if we were excluded from conservation plans. And harming us would endanger the ecosystems we protect. 

Some of our Amazonian peoples can be traced back thousands of years, to the first inhabitants of the Americas. Even as our territories shrink in this modern time, we resist genocide, pollution, new forms of colonization, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the destruction of our forest homes. 

We are still here, but we need help. Research by high-level experts worldwide suggests negotiators were wrong to exclude our rights from the Paris Agreement in 2015, but it’s not too late to address that oversight. The future - all our future - depends on correcting that mistake.