July 22, 2024

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Beneath a setting sun, marchers clad in feathered headdresses and hand woven clothing streamed across the Alto Beni River bridge on a muggy June evening, calling out: 

“Agua si! Minería no!” 

“Viva Amazonia!”

The march marked the opening of a four-day gathering known as the Pan-Amazon Social Forum (FOSPA), a semi-annual incubator where activists and leaders from Indigenous, Afro-descendant and other land-based communities exchange ideas for defending nature and the people of the Amazon rainforest.

Attendees, young and old, brown, Black and white, chanting “Water, yes! Mining no!” clasped signs representing dozens of organizations and causes, from “Women in the Northern Amazon” to “Nunca Más Un Mundo Sin Nosotros,” or Never Again a World Without Us. 

For the 1,400 who descended on this small, bucolic Amazonian town, most of whom hail from Indigenous and other local communities across the nine Amazonian countries—Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana—the meeting was a welcome change from the formal United Nations’ Conference of the Parties (COPs). COPs on climate change and biodiversity, which are dominated by government delegations, have been criticized for being captured by industry lobbyists. 

A group marches down a road surrounded by trees.
Amazonian marchers wave the Colombian flag (left)and Bolivian Aimara wiphala flag (right) during FOSPA.
Katie Surma/Inside Climate News

“FOSPA is one of the few spaces for us to have our own dialogues,” said Vanuza Abacatal, the leader of a 314-year-old Quilombola community in Pará, Brazil. Abacatal’s community has struggled to defend its autonomy and maintain its way of life in the face of an encroaching agricultural frontier, mining and deforestation. 

Beyond feeling that international negotiations are disconnected from their lives, the marchers here in Rurrenabaque and San Buenaventura, the small Bolivian towns hosting the conference, say governmental climate talks have failed. They cite the Paris Agreement’s target to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

In 2023, global average temperatures breached 1.5 C for 12 months in a row, the European climate service Copernicus announced in February, and the world’s current warming trajectory will put global temperature rise at 2.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. Scientists say that amount of warming will be disastrous for the Amazon. Current levels of warming are already changing the forest’s hydrological cycles, drying it out and making it more susceptible to fire. As more forest is lost, more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, worsening global warming in a reinforcing cycle. 

Climate change is just one of several human-driven forces that has, over the last century, caused about 20 percent of the Amazon to be lost and an even larger portion to be degraded. Agriculture, cattle rearing, mining, oil extraction and logging are all contributing factors. Loss of the Amazon, which is happening at a pace of roughly four soccer fields per minute, has already reached a point where some portions of the forest can no longer regenerate and have become grasslands. Directly affected are 47 million people living in the Amazon region who depend on the forest for their livelihoods, fresh water and other resources. 

The marchers here at FOSPA are witnessing the Amazon’s destruction first hand. “We are being suffocated by large enterprises,” Abacatal said. 

Indigenous women march with a sign that reads “Free Territories and Bodies, in defense of Aguarague and Tariquia Tarija” during FOSPA on June 12.
Katie Surma/Inside Climate News

She and other Amazonian inhabitants are simultaneously the most impacted by the loss of the forest and, they have long argued, best positioned to safeguard what remains of it. Their peoples’ centuries of experience living within the forest has endowed them with valuable knowledge about it.

Research is quickly catching up to them, with study after study confirming that Indigenous communities with secure land tenure have the best conservation outcomes, even when located near urban areas. And, increasingly, scientists are partnering with some Indigenous and local communities to identify key biodiversity hotspots and prioritize those areas, like animal reproduction and migration zones, for conservation. 

With those bona fides, participants said they are ramping up their ambitions since the last FOSPA, held in 2022 in Belem, Brazil. That conference, like the nine before it dating to 2002, generated an accounting of the threats facing the forest and called on governments to do more to protect it. 

But in the intervening two years since Belem, millions of acres of the Amazon have been cleared, burned or degraded; threats to inhabitants like mining and drug trafficking grew; and governmental talks in a separate conference in Belem in 2023 among the leaders of the nine Amazonian nations concluded without an agreement on stopping illegal deforestation by 2030. Instead, that Brazil-led summit ended with a vague text promising to cooperate on staunching illegal deforestation and promoting sustainable development. 

A map of South America showing Bolivia in the center.

So, with the stakes as high as ever, FOSPA attendees in Rurrenabaque had a deadline in sight: Within four days, they had to deliver a written prescription for what the world must do to prevent “climate and ecological collapse.” 

‘Original people without our land are nothing’

On the second day of the conference, in an Indigenous community outside Rurrenabaque, dozens of people focused their attention on Mari Luz and Emilsen Flores, Peruvian Kukama leaders. They were gathered inside a rainforest pavilion where nearly everyone had broken out into a sweat in the tropical heat. The pavilion had been set up with white plastic chairs, though some local men remained standing outside, their heads poking over the structure’s walls.

Luz, speaking in a gentle voice, unspooled how she, Flores and other Kukama women won a historic Peruvian court ruling in March, establishing that the heavily polluted Marañon River is a living being with inherent rights. 

It was a major victory in the rights of nature movement, which aims to garner legal recognition of the rights of rivers, forests and whole ecosystems to exist. The movement is largely seen as translating into law the worldviews of Indigenous peoples. 

A man sits next to two women on a porch surrounded by tropical plants in the background.
Emilsen Flores (center) and Mari Luz (right), Peruvian Kukama leaders, speak to attendees of the FOSPA conference on June 13 in Bella Altura, Bolivia.
Katie Surma/Inside Climate News

As Luz spoke, glasses of fresh papaya juice and chicha, a customary drink made from fermented corn, were passed around to the mix of conference attendees and Tacana people from the host community, Bella Altura.  

She began in 2000, when environmental organizations from Europe came to meet with locals about the vast oil-related pollution in the Loreto region of Peru, which had been ongoing since 1974. For Luz and the others, who depended on the Marañon River for food, water and transportation, the contamination had been catastrophic. 

During the male-dominated meetings, Luz and other women had sat quietly, she explained, listening to the discussion about human rights. But later, the women met amongst themselves to discuss what they had heard. Luz recalled: “We women said, ‘We’re supposed to have rights. How can oil projects be forced on us when we don’t want them?’” 

The women quietly formed their own federation, the Huaynakana Kamatahuara kana, meaning “working women,” she said, with the aim of protecting their environment, rights and culture. And then, in what would prove to be a propitious encounter, Luz was introduced to environmental lawyers at the Peru-based Institute of Legal Defense. She wanted to know whether the Marañon River, like her, had rights.

“Do rivers have rights?” reads an illustration depicting the story of the Peruvian Kukama women who won a landmark victory in March establishing that the heavily polluted Marañon River is a living being with inherent rights.
Katie Surma/Inside Climate News

A dialogue ensued, with Luz educating the lawyers about her peoples’ view of the world. Nature is alive, she told them, and every being has a spirit. Those spirits live in the mountains and beneath the river, maintaining all the life within it. 

The lawyers, in turn, told Luz and the Kukama women’s federation about the burgeoning body of law known as the “rights of nature.” 

Thus began a 10-year partnership that culminated four months ago in a trial court ruling in favor of the Marañon River’s rights. Luz was blunt about the difficulties throughout. She and her family had been threatened with violence. “To be famous is very dangerous,” she said. To attend court hearings, she had to leave her rural home in the middle of the night, traveling by motorized canoe for hours, often in drenching rain.

At times, she had to sell off chickens to pay for fuel for the boat trips. Government officials demeaned her and fined her 100,000 Peruvian Soles (about $26,000 USD), she said, for her advocacy. Men in her village denigrated her. “There is a lot of machismo; they treat women like objects,” she said. 

Luz, who became more animated the longer she talked, said that over the years, she had invited men in her village to the women’s federation meetings, swaying around 70 to 80 percent of them over to the women’s cause. “We’ve grown from the bottom,” she said. 

The “just energy transition” working group at FOSPA discussed issues ranging from access to energy to carbon credit schemes and ecosystem restoration.
Katie Surma/Inside Climate News

Across the pavilion from Luz and Flores, a half dozen teenage Tacana girls watched the women with focused concentration. Other people in the crowd, including members of Brazilian and Bolivian Indigenous communities, took notes.

Luz emphasized that the Kukama women are continuing to fight—the government and other defendants have appealed the trial court ruling, and those appeals are pending. Even if they win on appeal, enforcing the river’s rights to exist, flow and be free from pollution will not be easy, she said.  

In the crowd, heads nodded. Like Luz, many of the people gathered there had lost, or never had, faith that their state legal systems would protect them. Luz’s story emphasized what most already knew: No one was coming to save them. Real solutions, they said in a question and answer session following Luz’s talk, could only come through their own struggles, experiences and efforts.

One audience member asked Luz why she continued fighting.  

“Original people without our land are nothing,” she said. “Now that we know our rights and nature’s rights, we need to claim them.”

A just transition

A few miles away, in the town of San Buenaventura, attendees of the conference’s “just energy transition” group arrived via motorized tuk tuks at a meeting hall at the end of a dirt road. 

After more than a year of meeting over the internet, the group was now drilling down on a final list of proposals for what a transition away from fossil fuels ought to look like. 

With a microphone passed around for three-minute orations, the session had faint echoes of a U.N. summit. Except here there were no three-piece suits or backroom dealmaking by representatives from the fossil fuel, agriculture or mining industries. 

Members of the “just energy transition” group draft their findings following four-days of deliberations on the issues.
Katie Surma/Inside Climate News

Rather, participants’ policy proposals were braided together with their own lived experience with illegal mining in the Bolivian Amazon, or decades of oil pollution in Ecuador’s Oriente. 

There was broad consensus that the lack of electric power access for local communities throughout the Amazon was a major problem that had to be solved. In some cases, transmission lines had been installed adjacent to, or across from, forest communities but had never been connected. One woman told the group that her community in Brazil has no phone or internet. Instead, they have to communicate with an old-school radio. “If people don’t know what’s happening, they can’t participate in the debate about it,” she said. 

Without energy, people also cannot access education, obtain health services or build sustainable economies, J. Gadir Lavadenz Lamadrid, a La Paz-based campaign coordinator for Global Forests Coalition, told the gathering. That makes communities vulnerable when mining or oil companies approach them to initiate projects on, or affecting, community land, he said. 

Indeed, throughout Latin America, which produces a substantial share of the world’s fossil fuels, hydroelectric power and minerals used in zero-carbon technologies, 17 million people lack access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. 

The region is also one of the most economically unequal parts of the world, making energy affordability part of the problem—even for communities enduring the brunt of the impacts from energy supply chains.

As the microphone was passed around the room, a woman from Argentina’s lithium producing region said her community’s water and soil have been contaminated from lithium brine operations. But those affected, she said, have never been compensated for the destruction, which has not been remediated. When the community demanded that the provincial government provide them with consistent renewable energy, they were told they had to purchase batteries to store it. “We don’t have the money to do that,” she said. 

A colorful mural of an Indigenous person surrounded by Amazonian animals.
A mural in San Buenaventura, Bolivia depicts an Indigenous man and Amazonian wildlife, including fish overlaid with the abbreviation “Hg” for mercury on the periodic table. Studies show rivers in the Bolivian Amazon are riddled with mercury poisoning, linked to illegal gold mining operations in the region.
Katie Surma/Inside Climate News

The discussion moved on to a blistering criticism of the overconsumption habits of people living in wealthy countries, including the idea that the climate crisis can be solved by individuals purchasing electric vehicles. The group, some of whom live in the shadow of mining operations for zero-carbon technology inputs, called for more investment in public transport and a cultural shift away from wealthy countries’ consumer-driven culture. 

There was also broad consensus that carbon and biodiversity offsets and credits were “false solutions” that come at the Amazonian communities’ expense. Indigenous and traditional groups in the forest, numerous speakers said, are rarely consulted about such projects. 

Just days before FOSPA kicked off, Brazilian police cracked down on a scheme that allegedly provided carbon offsets to large Western corporations for rainforest preservation despite continued illegal logging. The conferees in San Buenaventura called for the funding and financing behind offset projects to instead be directed toward Indigenous and other local communities that are living sustainably in the forest. 

Across 16 working groups at the conference, the issues debated were, unlike the U.N.’s annual climate COPs, rooted in the proposition of what is best for the Earth and, specifically, the Amazonian ecosystem. Ending $7 trillion in annual subsidies to extractive industries. Expanding agroecology and ecotourism. Enforcing Indigenous land rights and the right to free, prior and informed consent. Protecting environmental defenders, who are increasingly threatened, imprisoned, assaulted and killed for resisting development and extractive activities. 

Since 2014, nearly 300 environmental defenders have been killed in the Amazon, a statistic widely considered to be an undercount since the violence often takes place in remote areas. For many at FOSPA, the violence inflicted on people defending the forest is indistinguishable from the ravaging of the rainforest itself: “We are nature, defending nature,” was a common refrain.

There were also big new ideas hatched, like a detailed proposal for an Amazon-Andean treaty aimed at preserving the region’s hydrological cycles, recognizing water bodies as rights-bearing entities and creating a Permanent Assembly of Andean and Amazonian people to act as guardians for the water systems. 

The proposal includes a description of the region’s water cycle, which begins high in Andean glaciers, flows down through rivers, cycling through Amazonian flora and fauna, and eventually moves out into the Atlantic Ocean. When one part of the cycle is altered, the entire system is affected, speakers explained: When the Amazon burns, ash from the fires lands high in the Andes, turning glaciers black, drawing in more heat and accelerating their melt rates. Loss of Andean glaciers will have downstream impacts, including the ability of millions of people to access drinking water, they said. Climate change is also affecting the region’s hydrological cycle, with droughts and heat waves stressing water sources. 

Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s former U.N. ambassador and one of the conference’s organizers, said the proposed treaty is the first water-focused treaty that is non-anthropocentric, meaning that it is centered on what is in the best interest of the hydrological cycle rather than only addressing human interests. 

“This is the beginning of a new kind of multilateralism,” said Solon, who in 2010 played a central role in launching a global rights of nature movement that now has pushed through laws in over 30 countries. 

‘Without the Amazon there is no solution to the climate crisis’

For the last day of FOSPA, conferees packed into Rurrenabaque’s colosseum stadium against a backdrop of misty rainforest draped over mountainous cliffs. 

On stage, portions of the conference’s final document, “A call from the Amazon to build an Agreement for Life in the face of climate and ecological collapse,” were read aloud to booming cheers while women selling empanadas and small packages of peanuts made their way through the throngs of people in the stands, some chewing on wads of coca leaves.

“Without the Amazon there is no solution to the climate crisis. Without a solution to the global climate crisis, it will not be possible to save the Amazon,” the document began. 

Representatives of communities from across the Amazon rainforest gather inside the “Colosseo” in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia on June 15 for the closing of FOSPA.
Katie Surma/Inside Climate News

The communique called for the end of new investments in fossil fuel projects in the Amazon region and listed eight steps to end deforestation, including the demarcation and titling of Indigenous peoples’ lands and the sanctioning of institutions that finance activities causing deforestation.

With many in the stands filming the stage with their cell phones, representatives from three Ecuadorian Indigenous groups were asked to consider hosting the next FOSPA conference. 

The request was made largely on the basis of Ecuador’s landmark 2023 referendums, where 59 and 68 percent of voters, respectively, voted to end oil operations in a portion of Yasuni National Park and mining operations in the Chaco Andino cloud forest outside of Quito. Since the vote, Ecuador’s government has suggested that it may postpone compliance with the Yasuni referendum on national security grounds. Whether the country complies with the referendum is largely seen as a litmus test for the viability of plebiscites aimed at keeping fossil fuels in the ground. At FOSPA, participants batted around the idea of using similar tactics to block Brazil from pursuing controversial oil operations at the mouth of the Amazon River.  

The Yasuni and Chaco referendums are Amazon-grown tactics that participants aim to begin exporting. Pepe Manuyama, an Indigenous leader based in Iquitos, Peru, told other attendees they needed to lean into the political world of their home countries with the aim of promoting globally the Amazonian worldview—that nature is a living being, that it is possible for humans to thrive without unsustainably exploiting the Earth, and that humans and nature are interdependent.

“We need to build a new world,” he said. “From the Amazon, we can offer a different paradigm.” 

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