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Indigenous peoples’ rights key in stemming Amazon fires

Indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest are on the front line of defending themselves and their land from the rapidly spreading fires. A majority of the tens of thousands of fires are happening in Brazil, though fires are also raging in Bolivia where 10,000 km2 of forests (an area the size of Lebanon) have burned, as well as large areas in Paraguay and Peru.

This potential global emergency is yet another example of the ramifications of systematically ignoring and undermining indigenous peoples’ and their rights.

“The key to saving the Amazon lies in securing and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples so that they can control and manage their centuries-held land. Their long-standing, sustainable practices protect the world’s largest rainforest and the vast diversity of species within”, IWGIA Executive Director Julie Koch said.

Indigenous populations in the Beni region of Bolivia are being threatened as the quickly spreading fires approach their villages and forests.

"Our main concern is that the fire does not enter the forest," Javier Zelada, an indigenous leader of the Movimas people in the region, told IWGIA. "They want to have more than they have. That is why they are advancing against nature and indigenous peoples. That is why, since ancient times, we have been protectors of Mother Earth."

Fires in the Monte Verde Indigenous Territory in Bolivia. Photo: Territoria Indígena Monteverde

Global guardians of our forests

Indigenous peoples across the globe have been proven to be the world’s most effective guardians of our forests, managing roughly 40 per cent of the Earth’s protected land that stores massive amounts of carbon. These lands also stand on vast reserves of profitable natural resources, putting indigenous peoples’ rights to their land in direct conflict with the economic pursuits of governments and extractive industries.

“All governments responsible for the Amazon need to ensure that indigenous peoples can continue to live and practice their traditions without fear of government-implemented or illegal extractive industry actions invading their territories”, Koch said.

While wildfires are expected every year, Global Forest Watch warns that this is only the beginning of the fire season, with September being the month in which most of the fires normally occur. The organisation explains that most fires in the Amazon are due to human activity and that a majority of the current fires appear to be happening on land that is in the process of deforestation.

Disregarding and taking away the rights of indigenous peoples to responsibly manage their lands in traditional, sustainable ways, and putting that control into the hands of entities that do not have the same motives and relationship with the land creates a destructive situation. The large fires sweeping the Amazon, due to various reasons, including slash-and-burn methods to clear land for extractive and agricultural purposes, stem from this long-standing attitude toward indigenous peoples.

In Brazil, for example, deforestation in indigenous community forests from 2000 to 2012 was less than 1 per cent, compared with 7 per cent in the rest of the country. The high deforestation rate outside indigenous communities led to 27 times more carbon emissions.

Putting money ahead of rights

Bolivian president Evo Morales and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro have both come under scrutiny for undermining and ignoring indigenous peoples’ rights, while actively ramping up rhetoric and policies for the exploitation of indigenous land for agricultural, mining and other economic pursuits.

Morales, himself an indigenous person, has been a controversial leader for implementing policies that have undermined indigenous peoples’ rights. His 2016-2020 new economic plan for Bolivia expanded the country’s available agricultural land by 12,000 km2, equating to the clearing and burning of 2,500 km2 of land per year, including indigenous forest lands.

Further, the plan has also promised to significantly increase meat exports, including a promise of exporting 20,000 tons of meat to China in the second half of 2019 alone.

>> Read more about the situation in Bolivia here

Bolsonaro and his government, meanwhile, have turned a blind eye to the rights of indigenous peoples to pursue logging, mining, hydroelectric and other economic interests. In 2019, this has already led to the deforestation of an area the size of Jamaica in the Brazilian part of the Amazon.

On his first day in office, Bolsonaro re-assigned the responsibility of the Brazilian governmental agency Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI) to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is known to protect the interests of businesses that want access to protected indigenous lands. In a further move that continues his campaign against the interests and rights of indigenous peoples, Bolsonaro confirmed Marcelo Xavier da Silva, a staunch FUNAI critic with a track record of promoting the interest of agribusiness, as the new FUNAI president in July.

Tags: Land rights, Press releases



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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