Madrid, Spain – Some of them have not been home for nearly three months. Representing indigenous communities from across the Amazon rainforest, several dozen activists arrived in Europe in October to attend a Vatican synod on the environmental crisis in their region. It came during a year marked by unprecedented fires, oil spills and increasing deforestation for agriculture, forestry and mining.
After the meeting with Pope Francis, they campaigned in European cities before finally arriving at the United Nations COP25 climate conference in Madrid.
Many had not intended to stay on this side of the Atlantic for so long; in fact, few had planned to go to the Spanish capital at all. But when at the end of October it was decided to move COP25 from Santiago in Chile – following social unrest there – to Madrid, many leaders of rainforest communities packed up and headed here.
“Twenty years ago, we were protesting in the street,” explained Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, the chief coordinator of COICA, an association of South American indigenous groups.
“Now we are here at the COP25 as observers, albeit without a formal vote.”
Walking briskly through the vast conference centre that hosted the COP25, Mirabal spoke as quickly as he moved, with the air of someone who knew that time was of the essence and who was determined to make the most of this opportunity to get his message across to global leaders.
“But the problem is that while we [indigenous leaders] discuss [among ourselves] we cannot speak with governments. They are negotiating in another room. And we don’t know what they are talking about,” he said.
Before that, he had been invited by Pope Francis to represent indigenous people at the Synod, which recognised the environmental crisis the Amazon basin and its native people are facing.
As his group began to work with the pope, Mirabal said he realised just how much influence the leader of the Catholic Church had.
“Normally, when 300 indigenous leaders die, it isn’t considered news, nor is the death of the forest or disappearance of species,” he explained. “But when the pope says something, millions of people listen to his message.”
The pope had been eager to hear about how the Catholic Church could work with the Amazonian peoples, Mirabal explained. COICA proposed that the Church become an ally, and help to denounce the crimes committed against the region’s environment and its people, rather than simply evangelising in the region.
This year’s climate conference has also focused on the climate crisis in the region, and the related human rights issues faced by indigenous communities in Latin America.
Since the beginning of 2019, Bolsonaro’s administration has reversed policies defending the rainforest and its indigenous peoples. Figures released by the country’s National Institute for Space Research reveal that deforestation rose by nearly 30 percent this year. That equates to some 9,762 square kilometres (more than six times the size of Greater London) of forests being cut down.
In the run-up to COP25, Sonia Guajajara, a Brazilian environmental leader and politician, led a delegation of about a dozen indigenous leaders, under APIB, Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples Articulation, where she is executive coordinator, on a tour of European cities. Their aim was to draw attention to the abuses against indigenous people and the destruction of their land.
Guajajara’s own community recently lost a land defender. Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot dead by illegal loggers in November.
“He came from my territory. It is very sad,” she said, shaking her head.
Prior to the killing, she said she had warned the Brazilian authorities that threats had been made against the lives of indigenous land defenders.
Over the past 10 years, more than 300 people have been killed in conflicts over the use of land and resources in the Amazon.
When Guajajara’s group stopped in Geneva in November, one of her companions, Celia Xakriaba, an activist and professor from the region of Minas Gerais, had addressed an assembly at The Graduate Institute.
“What does land mean?” she had asked the students and academics in attendance. “It is where you have a place to return to,” she explained.
“Elsewhere, many people have lost the link to their land. But in the Amazon, the fires have burned the lives of indigenous peoples.”
The group’s aim, she explained, was to create awareness.
“When we meet parliamentarians, academics and businesses here, everything is an apprenticeship,” Xakriaba told them. “We are tired, but we need to stop this genocide.”
At COP25, Guajajara met several international civil society groups from Europe and North America to discuss advocacy strategies, before speaking at a news conference with other women leaders where she expressed her disappointment with international climate talks.
Like other indigenous leaders, she would like to see negotiations over the so-called Paris rulebook, which defines how the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement be implemented, guarantee the recognition of human rights.
But for indigenous representatives from different countries, opinions vary over how best to achieve shared goals, such as the recognition of cultural and land rights.
Guajajara did not believe that talking to her country’s delegates at COP25 would serve any purpose.
“It is not possible to negotiate with them,” she explained. “They are selling our rights, our territories. We are therefore unable to speak to the Brazilian government at this time.”
But some of the indigenous representatives from Peru felt differently. Their hope was that speaking to official representatives of their country at the conference would prove less frustrating than their efforts to accelerate the recognition of their rights at home.
“The states that represent us are indifferent [to our concerns],” explained Tabea Casique Coronado, a member of COICA from Peru. “We are not seeing positive results within these negotiations for indigenous peoples. They are not considering indigenous proposals when it comes to climate change.”
But, she added: “We are trying to dialogue with our leaders. We hope that through our participation here that the Peruvian state listens to us.”
Pushing to be heard in Peru
Elsewhere in the Peruvian rainforest, indigenous groups are opposing an Amazon Waterway Project, which will require the dredging of rivers to allow faster-moving channels for ships.
The project would cause irreversible damage to river beds and the species that rely on them, according to AIDESEP, the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest, which will, in turn, deplete the fish supplies upon which indigenous communities depend for sustenance.
A group of about a dozen members of different indigenous groups waited patiently during an official COP side-event organised by the Peruvian delegation at which the environment minister, Fabiola Munoz, spoke.
About half an hour after the session finished, Munoz approached the waiting group to say that she did not have time for a meeting.
Clearly frustrated by the response, the indigenous activists pressed the minister to listen to their concerns, particularly regarding the plans to dredge rivers.
“The process is too slow,” Lizardo Cauper, the president of AIDESEP, argued with the minister.
By the end of the discussion, Munoz had agreed to meet the group’s members in the Peruvian capital, Lima, after their return.
The question of how best to communicate and self-advocate has been a critical one for the groups.
Some leaders here have attended multiple climate conferences, where rainforests are recognised as a climate stabiliser, including through such initiatives as the REDD programme, which aims to mitigate climate change through forest management.
Some have used their presence at the conference to speak to representatives of countries that finance climate projects in their countries, urging them not to allow extractive businesses to invest in the fragile ecosystem that is the rainforest.
“Because of the way we live in the forest, we are the defenders of our territory,” explained Hilda Perez Mancori, an Ashanika leader, who also attended the COP20 in Lima. “Without our land we are nothing. It is there that we can find our food, our pharmacy, our homes, everything.”
But most indigenous representatives who attended the Madrid summit expressed frustration at the political process.
“We need all indigenous people to participate,” said Guajajara. “After 25 years of COPs, nothing has happened. In Brazil, there are more fires and our lands are [being] given away for the agricultural business.”
Mirabal, although hopeful following the Vatican synod, said the discussions taking place at COP25 were not in line with the popular global awakening to the climate emergency.
“Before the next COP, many catastrophes will happen, because countries are not implementing the agreement. But we are trying to defend the rights of our Mother Earth, our Pachamama, which government politicians are assassinating every day,” he reflected.
“We are evaluating if we will continue to participate here,” Mirabal added.
Together with national COICA leaders, he announced that the organisation will convene an international conference on the Amazon in Ecuador next August.
“We say that’s enough going from summit to summit and that indigenous people go from abyss to abyss.”