World's tropical forests and people imperiled by legal rollbacks under COVID-19

by Christine Murray | @chrissiemurray | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 18 February 2021 17:36 GMT

ARCHIVE PICTURE: Yanomami Indians outside their Amazon jungle hut after burning and clearing the landscape, in the northern state of Roraima on March 16, 1998. REUTERS/Gregg Newton

Image Caption and Rights Information

Brazil, Indonesia, Colombia, Peru and DR Congo have weakened regulations to boost economic growth

By Christine Murray

MEXICO CITY, Feb 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Threats against indigenous people and rainforests have risen during the coronavirus pandemic as governments have rolled back social and environmental safeguards to boost economic growth, land rights activists said on Thursday.

Governments in five countries with tropical forests have weakened legal safeguards to aid economic recovery, while expanding projects near native land, said a study by Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) and two universities.

"It is wrong to prioritize economic development over the protection of Indigenous Peoples' rights and tropical forests, especially during a pandemic," James Whitehead, director of FPP, a human rights group, said in a statement.

The world's 500 million indigenous people make up 6% of its population, but 15% of its extreme poor, according to the World Bank, often lacking legal rights to their traditional lands, which are being taken over by loggers, farmers and miners.

Three of the five countries in the study have territory in the Amazon - Brazil, Colombia and Peru - and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia host substantial rainforests, which are critical to stopping catastrophic climate change.

Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon hit a 12-year high in 2020, as President Jair Bolsonaro weakened the environmental enforcement agency and called for more commercial farming and mining to lift the region out of poverty.

Brazil passed 195 executive acts to dismantle and bypass environmental laws between March and May 2020, compared to 16 during the same period in 2019, a local study cited in the report found.

Indonesia passed a job creation bill in October that loosened regulations to attract foreign investment but undermines indigenous land rights, said the report, co-authored by Yale Law School and Britain's Middlesex University.

In a bid to stem COVID-19 infections, Colombia introduced online consultations for development projects, which the report's authors said violates indigenous people's rights to culturally appropriate processes.

Indigenous people have pushed back with legal challenges against oil exploration in Peru, demonstrations in Indonesia against land loss and protests in Brazil against a hydroelectric plant, the report said.

The rights groups urged governments to strengthen laws to protect indigenous people and force companies to carry out human rights and environmental due diligence on their supply chains.

"Indigenous Peoples are seeing their rights stripped away as the lands that have long been their homes are being stripped away as well," James Silk, a human rights professor at Yale Law School, said in a statement.

Related stories:

OPINION: Under cover of COVID, new laws in Asia threaten environmental and social protections 

Fear of more coronavirus-like pandemics as land rights 'under siege' 

Pandemic upheaval creates 'perfect storm' for land rights abuses

(Reporting by Christine Murray; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.