Drive for oil, gas and hydropower threatens communities who can protect rainforest warns veteran campaigner
By Ed King
Latin America’s remaining indigenous peoples are “under siege” from rapacious mining, ranching and energy companies, actress turned human rights activist Bianca Jagger has warned.
Earlier this month eight leaders from across the continent announced plans to replant 20 million hectares of forests by 2020, a sign they said of their commitment to protect the region’s precious rainforests from further degradation.
But Jagger said recent history indicated these were likely to be “empty promises”, and would not protect the rights or the future of the 385 indigenous Amazon tribes who rely on the health of their traditional lands to survive.
“My problem is that many of these leaders are talking the talk but not walking the walk. There are a lot of empty promises,” Jagger told RTCC in an interview.
“What I’m seeing in Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Nicaragua, it is not a response from Latin American leaders towards their indigenous people. What I see is an irrational course to get more drilling, mining and hydroelectric.”
Tropical deforestation is a huge climate problem, accounting for an estimated 6-17% greenhouse gas emissions, say scientists. Between 2000-2012 it increased by 2100 squared kilometres.
Halting it would increase to 65% the chance of limiting warming to below 2C, a level deemed safe by government officials.
But for Amazon tribes, the issue is personal. Some tribes, like the 51,000 strong Guarani in Brazil, have had their villages and forests divided up by ranchers and loggers, leaving them with a fraction of their ancestral lands.
In November one of the group’s most vocal leaders, Marinalva Manoel, was found stabbed to death on the side of a road.
Pitched against these abuses and warnings from scientists are the undoubted huge reserves of timber, minerals and fossil fuels above and beneath the Amazon, home to what are rumoured to be “super giant oil and gas fields” according to a senior oil executive.
Ecuador tried to resist the lure of black gold in 2007 by asking rich countries to donate $3.7 billion for it not to drill in an ecologically sensitive part of the rainforest called Yasuni, but in 2013 President Rafael Correa ditched the plans and authorised limited drilling.
Last week the government in Quito said it had suspended a $53 million aid package from Germany after legislators from Berlin tried to visit Yasuni and see the effects of oil exploitation on local communities.
A recent round of UN climate change talks in Lima, Peru, was meant to offer hope to small tribal groups living in the Amazon rainforest, which is shared by Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and five other countries.
But negotiations on a forest protection framework known as REDD+ broke down in Peru, due to continued disagreement between governments over the status of safeguards which are meant to ensure the protection of basic human rights.
“They don’t want to come to terms with the provisions to protect indigenous peoples,” said Jagger.
Where Lima did succeed was in highlighting the desperate plight of these communities, many of who lack legal documents proving they own land their families have farmed for generations.
On the second week of the UN conference over 15,000 people marched through the streets of Lima calling for a global climate change agreement that respected “human rights for all” and protected their natural resources.
Their anger was sparked by a series of deaths of indigenous leaders in the past two months, first four Peruvian anti-logging campaigners in September, and then the suspected murder of José Isidro Tendetza Antún of the Shuar people in Ecuador.
These are the latest in a series of murky killings linked to illegal logging and extractive industries in the Amazon.
According to the charity Global Witness 57 environmental activists were killed between 2002 and 2014 in Peru, the majority over land rights disputes.
A veteran of campaigns for indigenous tribes, Jagger described herself as “shocked” at the lack of progress during the Lima talks on protecting the rights of forest dwellers.
“Are we really seeing as decision from Latin American leaders to come forward, demarcate the land, give them the title?” she said.
“I truly don’t see that. But if they’re not capable to agree on the safeguards in 2014 for REDD+, then when are we going to see that?”
Jagger also pointed to the 242 planned dams in the Amazon, adding to what she said are 412 mega damns in the region, “harmful to indigenous people, which will threaten their livelihood, survival and culture.”
Of those, the vast 11,233MW, 18 turbine hydroelectric plant at Belo Monte on the Xingu river is emblematic of the change sweeping the Amazon.
After three decades of vigorous opposition to the dam, the Juruna tribe has been largely defeated by a mixture of bribes, threats and economic realities as the forest they lived in disappears.
When it comes online in 2015, the dammed river will flood 478 square kilometres, affecting the flow and temperature of the Xingu and its tributaries, potentially wiping out some species of fish and turtle that thrive in its waters.
For Brazil’s government, the dam is a necessary evil to ensure the lights and TVs stay on across the rapidly developing country, while keeping the country’s carbon emissions in check.
But evidence is clear that to win the battle against climate change, huge rainforests like the Amazon need to be protected – and the best way to do that is to empower local communities.
According to a scientific study in the journal Carbon Management published in Lima during the UN talks, designated indigenous areas in the Amazon store an estimated 28,000 megatons of carbon.
That’s more than Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo combined, and “sufficient to irreversibly alter continental-scale rainfall and climate regimes if released” write the authors.
These account for 52% of Amazonia’s tropical ecosystems across nine countries, but of this 20% is under threat from planned developments.
But where local groups are offered legal protection and remain in control of their lands, they continue to live in a “largely sustainable” way, said the study.
“The inextricable relationship between Amazonian indigenous cultural identity and tropical forest ecosystems, including their flora and fauna, forms the basis of indigenous peoples’ ongoing political struggle for recognition of their land and resource rights and the extant indigenous territories.”
For Jagger, who at times could barely contain her anger at the lack of protection afforded vulnerable communities in her home continent, the solution is simple. But it requires political will from leaders who rarely fail to disappoint.
“In order to protect and safeguard the rainforest we need indigenous people. We cannot achieve that without them, and if we are not able to understand that I don’t really see how we will be able to tackle climate change,” she said.
“On the one hand I don’t know we will really have a legally binding treaty leading up to Paris, and if we’re not able top have some concrete policies to protect those people I don’t know how we will address the issue of the most important challenge we face in our life today.”