Can Native Communities Save the Planet With Protests and the Pope?

Even the Vatican is taking note of Latin American indigenous communities’ successes in combating policies and projects they fear could cause even more environmental damage.

Source Composite Sean Culligan/OZY; Image Getty

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These communities have for centuries been the first line of defense for the planet.

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Ecuador’s indigenous community federations finally got what they were fighting for. After two weeks of protests that led President Lenín Moreno in October to temporarily relocate the country’s government outside Quito, Moreno reversed his decision to scrap fuel subsidies. But this came at a huge cost: By the time the opposing parties negotiated, five people had been killed while protesters barricaded roads and ransacked government buildings. 

The result reflects the increasing clout of indigenous movements across Latin America — clout that’s being used to fight for the environment. A peak in the Amazon rainforest fires this year coincided with terrifying scientific studies from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that global warming may have already reached a tipping point.

Protests In Ecuador

Ecuador’s indigenous communities celebrate in Quito, Ecuador, after President Moreno agreed to change fuel subsidy cuts.

Source Getty Images

From Peru to Ecuador and beyond, indigenous communities in Latin America are gaining momentum in combating policies and projects they fear could cause even more environmental damage. Their battles — and, increasingly, successes — are forcing governments and companies to pay attention in the face of threats of more organized action. Even the Vatican is taking note.

In the southern Peruvian Andes, 13 communities near a mining complex owned by Swiss firm Glencore are pushing for prior consultation in the nearly 25,000-acre expansion plans of the Coroccohuayco copper mine, which had been expected to begin this year. Residents are concerned about environmental and health impacts.

if they stop resisting, deforestation will multiply quickly.

Lizardo Cauper, Interethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Forest

Meanwhile, in the eastern jungle region of Ucayali, the Shipibo community of Santa Clara de Uchunya is fighting palm oil companies that first deforested and then sourced from trees replanted on untitled traditional land. The Shipibo community and its partners — the Federation of Native Communities of the Ucayali and civil rights groups — say the land had been unlawfully acquired. Their fight led to the delisting of United Cacao — which owned giant plantations — from the London Stock Exchange before it filed for bankruptcy and is forcing other Peruvian palm oil processors to review their approach.

Meanwhile, in October the Vatican called a synod — an extensive meeting of bishops — to expressly discuss the rainforest’s preservation, following the pope’s visit to the Peruvian Amazon in 2018.

Non-Catholic representatives of indigenous communities have been invited to participate. And Ecuador’s recent protests were led by the Coordinator of Indian Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA).

VATICAN-BRAZIL-AMAZON-POLITICS-RELIGION-ENVIRONMENT-SYNOD-POPE

The pope at the opening ceremony for the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region.

Source ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty

“Governments alone have the power to stop the violence against the Amazon,” says Gregorio Díaz Mirabel, chief coordinator of the Quito-headquartered COICA, which comprises nine national indigenous organizations. “Otherwise indigenous people have to take to the streets, and it is sad, because our brothers die. That’s not what we want.”

These communities are on the front line of a spiraling crisis. In 2018, Global Forest Watch reported that some 29 million acres of forest were lost worldwide. In the Amazon, agriculture, illegal logging and gold mining are the main causes of deforestation. In Peru, migrants from poor mountainous regions are often responsible for the forest loss.

In San Martín, one of the main palm-oil-producing regions in Peru, migrants supply large palm-oil-processing companies, which often offer credit to the farmers to start their plantations. “For the migrant, this doesn’t mean anything,” says Alberto Amasifuen Cachique, head of the Kichwa-Lamista community. He points toward the towering tropical trees in the surrounding forest. “They are not interested in planting trees,” he continues. “We will not be able to breathe clean air and will have to drink contaminated water. How many lives will be affected?”

Peru is a signatory to the International Labor Organization’s 1989 agreement, known as Convention 169, that guards the rights of indigenous people to their land. But Lima has yet to recognize those rights formally, says Cachique. And patience is wearing thin.

“The state is kidding with us. We will block the roads,” he warns. “Who will that affect then?”

While some 34 million acres of indigenous lands in the Amazon have been recognized, another 49 million still lack titles, says Lizardo Cauper, a consultant with the Interethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Forest, the country’s biggest indigenous organization. Those include areas that have been recognized but await formal titles, others that await an expansion of the territories for new generations — Peruvian law allows for parcels to be expanded for this purpose — and communities that have never been awarded formal titles.

Political opposition to the growing recognition sought by these communities remains a challenge. At a recent conference in San Martín the region’s governor, Pedro Bogarín, suggested that some claiming native ancestry are actually mestizos. “They aren’t natives from inside the forest,” he said. And the pope’s emphasis on climate change has drawn criticism from conservative Catholic leaders in different parts of the world.

But the gains for indigenous communities are hard to ignore. For Díaz Mirabal, the October synod was an opportunity for the amplification of calls from indigenous groups to defend the Amazon. “It is the first time in the history of the church that indigenous peoples are able to be part of a debate within its internal structure, with the cardinals and bishops,” he says. “We believe that due to the important significance the pope has globally, the church could help us.” Preservation of the Earth’s second-largest rainforest is expected to be a focal point of discussion at the United Nation’s next climate conference, which was to be held in Chile in December until recent protests forced the country to pull out as host.

In 2018, Peru’s Environment Ministry recognized the role indigenous communities play in defending the environment and announced a program to pay communities to protect the rainforest, at 30 soles ($9) per 2.5 acres. Still, says Cauper, the state first and foremost needs to recognize the rights of native communities over their territories. More than the rights of these communities is at stake. “If the government’s centralism continues, it will be ever more difficult for the indigenous peoples to resist,” he says. “But if they stop resisting, deforestation will multiply quickly.” 

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