Indigenous rights and forest protection: more important than ever!

by Marie-Josée Beliveau

April 3, 2020

Indigenous peoples around the world protect climate critical forests.

© Todd Southgate / Greenpeace

“Trees are alive and they support the lives of thousands of beings. Animals and humans depend on it. My people realize that this forest is crucial for humanity. But humanity must help us protect it. ”

Itahu Ka’apor, a forest guardian in the Brazilian Amazon, said this to me a couple of years ago. Here’s why we must heed his words.

Itahu Ka’apor shows me the Alto Tiruaçu Indigenous territory. Photo credit: Marie-Josée Beliveau.

In 2018, I traveled through the Amazon rainforest and saw the courage of Indigenous peoples there: the true guardians of the last frontiers of this forest. My journey took me from Brazil to Ecuador. The first Indigenous territory I visited, Alto Turiaçu in Brazil, is protected by the Ka’apor people. They have set up a forest guardians program. Their entire community is protecting the region’s rich biodiversity by facing destructive logging and big agricultural companies that are eating away at the forest. Several community members have been trained and are working courageously every day to monitor the area.

The results of their work are so impressive. A few days later, when I met anthropologist Manoel Ribeiro Ruth Moraes, from the Federal University of Pará in Belem, he showed me a map worth a thousand words. Here it is:

In the center of the map is the Alto Turiaçu territory, the only area of forest still intact. It is bravely preserved by the forest guardians of the Ka’apor people.

Manoel Ribeiro has been studying the area for a long time and explained that the greatest defenders of the Amazon are the Indigenous peoples. But he added that for these peoples to continue this work of preservation, it is essential to recognize their territorial rights. According to Manoel, as well as empirical data, the survival of the forest depends on it. But at the moment, several countries, particularly Brazil, have gone backwards in terms of land rights. “It is more important than ever for people to be aware and hold governments accountable, whether in Brazil or elsewhere, to value the rights of these peoples,” Manoel explained.

A forest warden from the Alto Turiaçu territory. Photo credit: Marie-Josée Beliveau.

The A’i Kofan of Ecuador

Three months later, I met the A’i Kofan, another group of Indigenous peoples more than 7,000 km away, on the other side of the Amazon. The A’i Kofan have also set up a forest guardian program in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon. In their case, they organize themselves to resist the mining industries that enter their territories and chew up riverbeds with heavy machinery in order to extract minerals.

The region’s watersheds are contaminated by these activities and by the many chemicals used, which then flow into the great Amazon basin. Mercury contamination is very high among local residents. Several of them, including the A’i Kofan, have formed an important alliance to protect the Ecuadorian Amazon: the Alianza Ceibo.

Dangers facing forest guardians

As many environmental defenders lose their lives, it is all the more important to highlight the courage of the guardians of the forest, and just how much they are sacrificing to protect the land. In Brazil, there have been 49 murders in less than 20 years in the Guajajara Indigenous community alone, the highest rate in the region. You may have heard of Paulino Guajajara, who gave his life for the forest.  Zezico Rodrigues, also of the Guajajara Indigenous People, was found dead just a few days ago. A teacher and director in the Azuru Indigenous School Education Center, Rodrigues had a dominant role in defending the traditional territory of the Guajajara People.

We must show the Brazilian government and others across the globe that murders of environmental defenders and Indigenous Peoples do not go unnoticed — not during the COVID-19 crisis, not ever. As we fight to save the forests, we too must fight for those who best protect it.

Indigenous leaders from Brazil and Greenpeace Germany activists peacefully demonstrate at the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF). 
A key concern is the serious increase in violence against Brazilian Indigenous Peoples and the destruction of their lands since President Bolsonaro took office in January. Photo credit: Kevin McElvaney / Greenpeace.

Forests in Canada Under Threat

Forests in Canada are also under enormous industrial pressure and biodiversity is in decline. We can all think of the Wet’suwet’en peoples’ struggle to protect their territory. And in Quebec’s Val d’Or, an iconic woodland caribou herd has now dwindled to an estimated 7 remaining individuals in their degraded Boreal forest. Despite the Lac Simon First Nation’s many warnings over the years, real solutions to protect the herd and its habitat have not been put in place.

The work of conservationists on the front line

Whether they are opposing clear-cut logging, devastating extractive development projects, or the loss of biodiversity, millions of peoples are protecting forests and Indigenous peoples are on the front lines.

To face the multiple crises surrounding us, we must follow the example of environmental defenders. The forests of biodiversity that surround us will allow us to build a healthy and sustainable future together, for generations to come.

Marie-Josée Beliveau

By Marie-Josée Beliveau

Food and nature campaigner at Greenpeace Canada, Marie-Josée Béliveau is passionate about green living alternatives.

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