Artwork by Isaac Canady, a Connecticut-based artist. (Courtesy Isaac Canady)

Indigenous Forest Defenders Go Global

Native groups pressure the corporate world to end financing of drilling

By Abē Levine


A mile from Brazil’s presidential palace, 6,000 Indigenous people gathered in September to protest President Jair Bolsonaro’s attempts to hand their ancestral land over to corporate interests. 

Demonstrators at the Struggle for Life donned surgical masks stained red and hoisted a black coffin covered with red handprints and a horned image of Bolsonaro, symbolizing Indigenous lives lost due to policies they describe as genocidal. The protesters were unified in resistance to the president’s efforts to push deeper into the Amazon rainforest ahead of a monumental Supreme Court decision with far-reaching impacts on their sovereignty.  

In Brazil and the other nine countries spanned by the vast rainforest, Indigenous groups are calling on the global community to help defend the Amazon. Often called the Earth’s lungs because of its size and oxygen output, the Amazon is ailing due to fires and deforestation fueled by policies promoting oil and gas extraction. Bolsonaro’s Marco Temporal policy seeks to invalidate all Indigenous land claims gained before 1998, the year Brazil enshrined its constitution.  

Indigenous groups, often isolated by the governments of the nations where they live, are building solidarity with one another and taking their fight to an international stage.

The capitalist concept of development is to eat it until it’s all gone. And the local communities are really resisting that.

—Alberto Saldamando, a Native human-rights advocate and lawyer 

A spate of legal appeals, mass protests and demands for sovereignty mark a coordinated push for nations to acknowledge harms visited on Indigenous communities through forced assimilation as well as an end to policies that aim to usurp the land and resources of Native people. In a petition to the International Criminal Court on Aug. 9, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, which represents more than 300 ethnic groups, accused Bolsanaro of ecocide and genocide.

Though Indigenous tribes lack formal negotiating power in international climate change agreements, they’ve formed a collective latform. Key tenets include protecting land tenure rights, keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and asserting their agency as nations seek to implement “nature-based solutions.” Wealthy nations including the U.S., UK, and Germany pledged $1.7 billion towards protecting Indigenous land tenure and resources, and a group of 137 nations committed to end deforestation by 2030. 

Critics of the pledges say more agency needs to be given to Indigenous people who safeguard 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Nature-based solutions, such as preserving forestland, need to include Indigenous leadership and maintain Indigenous peoples’ right to consent, tribal leaders at the conference said.  

“The capitalist concept of development is to eat it until it’s all gone,” said Alberto Saldamando, a Native human-rights advocate and lawyer who represented the Indigenous Environmental Network at this year’s historical Conference of the Parties. “And the local communities are really resisting that.”  

In recent years, the Amazon’s resources have been pursued with such unchecked expediency that the rainforest may undergo a swift transformation into an unrecognizable landscape. Rather than gradually deteriorating, scientists say the Amazon is increasingly vulnerable to sudden “diebacks” that would convert the rainforest into a tree-barren savannah, according to research from Brazil dating back to 2003.  

At 2.72 million square miles, the Amazon covers a portion of Latin America roughly the size of the continental U.S. Over the last half century, 17% of its rainforest territory has been lost. Recently, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) issued a call to protect 80% of the Amazon by 2025. A statement from the Amazonian defense nonprofit, Amazon Watch, warns that if 20 to 25% of the Amazon becomes deforested, the world’s largest tropical ecosystem will reach “A point of no return.” 

Deforestation, long a problem as agribusinesses burned virgin forests to make room for cattle, soy and palm oil plants, has been accelerating. Under Bolsonaro, deforestation in Brazil has hit a 10-year high. In the past year, the rainforest saw losses 13 times the size of New York City, an increase of 57% compared to a year earlier.

If the pace of deforestation continues, a 2018 report in the journal Science argues, the Amazon will reach a tipping point that would drastically alter global weather patterns. The Amazon acts not only as an oxygen contributor but also a water pump for the atmosphere. Trees in the region release billions of gallons of water into the atmosphere and play a key role in regulating rainfall in the region and beyond. The Amazon acts as a “weather engine” that impacts rainfall as far as the midwestern United States

Draining swamplands, grazing cattle and damming waterways to flood land trigger the release of nitrous oxide and methane. These greenhouse gases retain more heat radiation than CO2, leading to extreme droughts and fires. Brazilian researchers from the National Institute of Space Research recently came to the alarming conclusion that damaged areas of the rainforest now emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb, placing the rainforest’s crucial role as a carbon sink in jeopardy. 

Patricia and José Gualinga of Sarayaku, Ecuador. (Climate Alliance Org)

Taking their fight to the world

Some 385 Indigenous groups, who have inhabited the forest sustainably for thousands of years, along with environmentalist allies are working on many fronts to protect the Amazon. Bolsonaro said during a campaign speech that he would not legally designate a single centimeter of land for Indigenous people. 

Research shows that land held in Indigenous ownership undergoes markedly less deforestation. Nearly half of Brazil’s carbon emissions come from land use and it is the primary nation responsible for Amazonian deforestation.

The U.N.’s ​​Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “talks about secure land tenure for Indigenous people’” said Saldamando, who is of Zapotec and Mexican-American heritage. “And we think that means land title.” 

Preventing displacement of Indigenous people also is integral to the declaration on human rights included in the Conference of the Parties’ overarching framework, which was ratified in Rio de Janeiro in 1994. 

Saldamando said that sustainable development has to be defined by Native people, who’ve argued that their rights must supersede the interests of oil and mining ventures. A campaign to stop the funding pipeline from multinational banks to oil companies is under way. 

“We’re asking all the NGOs to take up that struggle and put pressure on their banks, their private banks,” Saldamando said. 

During an “exit strategy” webinar, the conservation organization Stand.Earth reported that five of the six top banks funding oil transport from the Sacred Headwaters in the Upper Amazon region in Ecuador and Perú committed to stop financing moving oil to the U.S. Stand.Earth is part of a coalition demanding that the world’s largest oil funders seek alternative investments. 

Indigenous activists and lawyers have also sought recognition for the legal rights of the Amazon as a living entity. In 2008, Ecuador enshrined the rights of nature in its constitution. “Now there are various countries that in one way or another recognize nature…as a someone, not a something,” said Mario Melo, an Ecuadorian human-rights lawyer. The “living forest” principle is referred to as Kawsak Sacha in Kichwa, an Indigenous language spoken by Native people in Ecuador, Columbia and Perú. 

The problem in Ecuador

Brazil’s forest-destroying policies are echoed in Ecuador, where President Guillermo Lasso has issued Decree 95, which would double oil production from the Amazon region to one million barrels a day, violating the rights of seven tribal nations. “This is a policy that flies in the face of global anxiety about climate change,” said Melo.  

A leading Indigenous leader, Patricia Gualinga of the Sarayaku, says Ecuador’s constitution upholds the tenets of International Convention 169, which guarantees human-rights protections for Indigenous people.

 “Without consent, one can’t enter Indigenous territories. We will not give up that position as Indigenous people, no matter how many presidential decrees there are,” she said. 

In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered an oil company to remove one and a half tons of explosives placed in Amazonian rainforest belonging to the Sarayaku. The tribe, represented by Melo, is still waiting on a Constitutional Court in Ecuador to enforce the judgement.  

Sovereignty connects to survival

Preserving Indigenous knowledge goes hand-in-hand with preserving stewardship over the land. While commitments have been made to include Indigenous knowledge into carbon reducing solutions, less emphasis has been placed on maintaining Indigenous rights to consent and ties to place. 

Green solutions like creating national parks and planting trees can still result in the displacement of tribes, Saldamando said. During hotly contested negotiations for Article Six to define how climate interventions can be counted or purchased as “offsets” for carbon pollution, parties added language protecting human rights.

Indigenous groups say that the provisions don’t go far enough. 

“There’s all kinds of conflagrations in terms of what nature-based solutions are,” Saldamando said.  

Protecting Indigenous sovereignty is not only a moral imperative, advocates warn—it’s instrumental to the survival of humankind. If the Amazon succumbs to unrelenting economic exploitation, it will be as though the Earth has lost an irreplaceable part of its anatomy, ushering in untold climate imbalance.

“Our fight is yours,” Gualinga said.