The struggle of indigenous peoples for their rights and for their environment should be taken more seriously by the international community, as it would provide measures to stop global warming.
Only after the last tree is cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will we realize that we cannot eat the money. " This famous phrase attributed to the Cree Indians of North America may be apocryphal, but it is becoming more and more real. Around the planet, about 450 million people belonging to 5,000 indigenous peoples are being affected by climate change produced by the coal, oil and gas industries, among others. This phenomenon is gradually ending clean air and drinking water on our planet, in addition to causing natural disasters of which millions of people are victims.
Many indigenous leaders have become activists to defend their environment, which is also ours. Because of that, they often risk their lives. According to the NGO Global Witness in a 2015 report, two people die a week from rebelling against the destruction of the ecosystem. In 2014 116 activists were murdered, and 40 percent of them were indigenous. But unrecorded killings can add to that number. Often the victims disappear and are never found again. The struggle for the survival of indigenous peoples is linked to the protection of the environment and the defense of the most basic human rights.
In this interview, Ulrich Delius, director of the Society for Threatened Peoples, talks about the situation of the original peoples of Latin America.
To what extent is the danger faced by indigenous peoples in Latin America linked to the destruction of the environment?
Ulrich Delius: There is a clear link between both phenomena, since the relationship of the indigenous people with their land is very important to be able to fish, hunt and grow their food. If these lands are threatened by climate change, as is the case throughout Latin America, this has direct consequences on the way of life of these peoples. Many rivers no longer have a flow of water, or are totally contaminated, as is increasingly the case, for example, in the Amazon, and in others there are almost no fish. This affects their traditional way of life, as it is highly dependent on their environment. These indigenous peoples thus lose their vital foundation.
Many indigenous leaders are also activists who fight for the environment because they are trying, precisely, to preserve their ecosystem. This phenomenon is seen in many Latin American countries. How are they treated?
What we see in many Latin American countries is that indigenous activists who work to have their rights recognized, and to protect their lands and the environment, are intimidated, persecuted, illegally imprisoned and, above all, murdered. Either in Honduras, Brazil or in any other Latin American country. The attacks are carried out by the security forces and the Army. That has serious consequences for communities. The objective of these attacks is that indigenous people are afraid of fighting for their rights in conflicts with large companies that invest capital in those countries, or with landowners.
On the other hand, some representatives of the industry and even some media assure that indigenous groups try to take over illegally and, in part, through violence, territories that they claim have belonged to their ancestors.
It is a very broad discussion. The representatives of indigenous groups claim to be the owners of these territories, and that these companies or governments occupied them without respecting their rights. It is a very delicate situation, since many indigenous communities do not recognize the rights of the countries where they live, arguing that those laws were precisely the ones that subjected them to slavery, and for which they lost their lands, and that now they also criminalize them for try to recover them and protect their livelihood. “They are his laws; not ours ”, many of them think. The question of illegality depends on the point of view from where you look at it. Land occupation and other violent measures are attempts by indigenous people to draw attention to these conflicts. And to be heard, many times they can only use illegal methods, that is the tragedy of the matter.
The other side of the medal is the question of what exactly is the objective of the indigenous people: Do they want to regain the right to their lands? How would they live if they succeeded? Do they want to integrate into the society in which they live? Or do they want to establish their own states?
It is a very complex question. On the one hand, many indigenous peoples in Latin America are faced with the reality that they have become a minority that had been displaced, in the first instance, to areas that seemed to have no economic relevance, but that later turned out to be of interest to them. investors. In other words, they are now also being displaced from those territories, with the approval of the government and the majority of society. Indigenous people believe that, despite being a minority, they have the right to a dignified perspective on life in the country, to have their rights and traditions respected. Integration must not turn into assimilation, into submission to the culture of the majority. We have to differentiate what we are talking about. Is it about survival only? Or also to preserve living conditions as an ethnic group? That is the great problem faced by many indigenous groups in Latin America, who want to be recognized as a minority that needs a vital space to develop as they are, and that includes the management of resources.
Very few Latin American indigenous peoples show a tendency to want to establish their own state. Most of them recognize the State of the country where they live and try to make use of their right to participation. But precisely those rights are taken away from them, for example, when business projects are planned on their lands and they are not asked if they agree at the planning stage, but rather are confronted with decisions already taken that prevent them from continuing with their life and plan your future.
Which are, in your opinion, the indigenous peoples most at risk today?
That depends on where you put the accent. There are communities that are suffering the loss of their original culture. But there are others who are seriously threatened with life: these are small groups of up to 100 people, especially in Brazil, who have no contact with the outside world and are threatened with death if they come into contact with viruses than for the rest of the world. society are not mortal.
Various indigenous peoples in Brazil have the impression that the end of time has come due to the measures of the Michel Temer government, which plans the total economic and industrial exploitation and the transfer of their territories for business projects. Everywhere the rights that they had obtained with much effort are being taken away from them. The Temer government is reversing many rights that had been recognized for indigenous people, and the situation is getting worse. These are projects, especially in the north of the Amazon, where there are entire communities that are in danger of being expelled from regions declared as industrial zones.
What could governments and also non-governmental organizations do to ensure that the rights of indigenous peoples are respected?
Ten years ago, on September 13, 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was approved. That was an important first step. But we observe that the States that ensure that what that resolution dictates is truly carried out is a minority. The idea is that these norms are concretely complied with in daily life, and not that the existence of indigenous peoples is celebrated one day a year. Governments have to take indigenous representatives into account when planning their measures, as active actors in politics. All these peoples have different ideas about planning for the future and those ideas are, most of the time, doable.
In November the UN Climate Change Conference COP23 is held in Bonn. How important is the active participation in politics of indigenous representatives regarding an agreement on real measures to curb climate change?
Climate change is, in principle, the greatest threat to the survival of indigenous peoples, and the greatest responsibility for that change continues to advance rests with rich and emerging countries. We are seeing this phenomenon on all continents. Indigenous people and ethnic minorities are the first to suffer the consequences and effects of global warming, since they are the ones who depend the most on natural resources. The point is that the international community must take the suffering of these communities more seriously and develop measures to alleviate that suffering. How can forests be better protected? How to ensure that national laws are consistently enforced without just making up or just words that can be violated due to corrupt local authorities working in tandem with organized crime and mafias? Regarding COP23 in Bonn, we will invite a delegation of representatives of indigenous peoples of Brazil so that they can raise their voices alongside that of governments and other organizations.