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Respect their rights

As scientists and government representatives gather in Copenhagen, Denmark to hammer out a global response to climate change, Amazonian Native leaders are concerned about how the outcome will impact their people and their territories.

Among the expected results of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which began Dec. 7 and will continue through Dec. 18 in Copenhagen, is the approval of an international scheme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which holds both promise and uncertainty for Native peoples.

REDD will likely become a market system for first-world governments, businesses and organizations to pay people in tropical countries to protect their forests and thereby combat climate change. Deforestation produces carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas – when trees are cut and burned, whereas standing forests mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon.

Scientists estimate that tropical deforestation is responsible for about 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and that if rainforest destruction continues at the current rate, 430 billion tons of carbon will be released into the atmosphere. REDD advocates the claim that curtailing tropical deforestation can be a quick and cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions, complementing reductions in transportation, industry, energy production and other areas.

The Amazon Basin holds more than half of the planet’s remaining tropical forests and is home to 375 indigenous peoples, who have title, or ancestral claims to 25 – 30 percent of that region – an area bigger than California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona and Utah combined. Studies have shown that the Amazon’s Native peoples do a better job of conserving the rainforest than their non-indigenous compatriots.

“The world owes indigenous people for having fought deforestation and prevented greater climate change,” said Diego Escobar, a Piratapuyo Indian from Colombia who represented the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) in Copenhagen. “When is the world going to pay us for having conserved all that forest and all that biological wealth?”

Escobar and other Amazonian leaders claim their people haven’t been sufficiently consulted about REDD, and they worry that governments, businesses, or conservation groups might use REDD contracts to wrest control of forests away from Native peoples.


A rainbow spanned the rainforest skies over the Cofan Indian land along the Cuyabeo River, an Amazon tributary in Ecuador.

Egberto Tabo, a Cavineño Indian from Bolivia and head of COICA, said some of the governments that will negotiate REDD agreements have recently violated Native rights. He cited the police attack on an indigenous blockade in Bagua, Peru last June that left 24 dead and the recent shooting death of a Shuar Indian in Ecuador during an Amazonian protest against new mining and water laws.

“When indigenous people have demanded that their rights be respected, they’ve been answered with repression,” Tabo said.

“With the current dynamic in the Amazon Basin, indigenous people are watching and weighing things. They’re worried because in some areas, there is no guarantee for even their basic rights,” said Juan Carlos Jintiach, a Shuar Indian and COICA representative.

Jintiach explained that even though indigenous organizations can’t participate in the Climate Conference, they are calling upon the international community to ensure that REDD complies with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which mandates the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous people for projects that will affect them or their territories.

Daniel Nepstad, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center and one of the architects of REDD, said that while there are dangers that the scheme could be abused, and the poor treatment of Indians by some governments is a problem, he believes REDD represents the best option for combating tropical deforestation and helping Native people benefit from their forest stewardship.

“I think that this is the biggest opportunity by far for indigenous people around the world to find a voice and to have a more powerful global arena within which they can finally secure formal, legal rights to their ancestral lands,” Nepstad said. “Do we know exactly how to make that potential be fully realized? No. Are there huge risks and could there be perverse effects of REDD? Definitely. But that is the case with any bold proposal.”

Nepstad, who is the lead author of an article called “The End of Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon” published in Science Magazine recently, is encouraged by recent developments in Brazil. Five years ago, Brazil accounted for approximately 40 percent of all tropical deforestation, but that destruction has decreased by 36 percent since 2005, largely thanks to the better enforcement of environmental laws.

“What has to happen for REDD to work is for there to be a shift toward basically legal forms of production. The illegal form, the violent component of frontier expansion has to be controlled and eventually be eliminated. This would be a huge benefit for everyone, including indigenous people.”