Amazonian "Canoe of Life" Brings Indigenous Rights Message to COP21

Indigenous Hand-Carved Canoe from Ecuadorian Amazon Arrives in Paris

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At a sunrise ceremony on the Canal de la Villette in central Paris, representatives of the Kichwa community of Sarayaku from the rainforests of Ecuador announced the arrival of a hand-carved 30-foot long traditional Amazonian canoe. The 10,000 km journey, three months in the making, marks the first time an Amazonian canoe of this kind has arrived to France.

The canoe brings with it an urgent message for the global decision-makers inside the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP) 21 currently underway in Paris. The Sarayaku Canoe of Life will be on display from Tuesday to Friday at the Indigenous Pavilion in the Climate Generations space at the COP, after which it will be on display at Paris City Hall until mid-January.

"Some 500 years ago the conquistadores came to our lands on boats, bringing devastation and death," said Felix Santi, President of Sarayaku. "Our canoe is a symbol of life and peace from the heart of the Amazon to show the world that our forests are still living and to tell those negotiating a climate treaty that indigenous rights and voices must be a fundamental part of any agreement that hopes to address climate change."

Today's ceremony comes on the heels of a flotilla action on Sunday that brought together indigenous people from the Arctic to the Amazon in a call to keep fossil fuels in the ground and urged governments to respect their collective indigenous rights. Though the Sarayaku Canoe of Life had not yet arrived, Sunday's action was inspired by their vision of bringing a canoe from the Amazon to Paris.

The canoe is shaped in the form of the rare Hummingbird Fish that lives in the depths of Sarayaku's sacred lagoons inside their 300,000+ acre territory. It joins a delegation of ten community members already in Paris who have been sharing their message inside the COP21 official and civil society spaces. The delegation is calling on world leaders to keep fossil fuels in the ground, defend indigenous rights, and protect the "Living Forests" of indigenous territories as fundamental solutions to the climate crisis.

The "Living Forest" concept includes the intrinsic spiritual value of the rainforests for indigenous peoples and the need to leave sub-soil carbon resources in the ground. Recent studies show that more than 80% of all fossil fuels are unburnable and must permanently remain in the ground if we are to avoid a 2° C temperature rise that scientists warn is a critical threshold for climate stability. Studies also show that the carbon stored in the Amazon's indigenous territories and protected areas – many of which are threatened by fossil fuel development – is sufficient to either destabilize or significantly contribute to the stabilization of the planet's atmosphere depending on the collective impact of development projects.

"We are both contributing to climate change solutions by keeping the oil under our territories permanently in the ground and keeping our forests intact above ground" said Patricia Gualinga, international representative for Sarayaku. "We are calling for a new definition and protection of forests – the Kawsak Sacha, or 'living forest' – that will ensure protection and recognition of critical primary forests like those in Sarayaku."

Like most indigenous peoples, the Kichwa community of Sarayaku is on the front lines of climate change. "Our medicine people and elders have been talking about climate change for a long time. It's only now that the scientists are catching up," said Ena Santi, the women's representative for Sarayaku. We have seen our rivers go dry or abnormally flood. Recently, for the first time, hail fell in our community – in the middle of the Amazon. We are the ones that know what the earth needs, and we need world leaders to listen to us."

Despite Sarayaku having communal land title, the Ecuadorian government and foreign petrochemical companies have long sought to extract oil from beneath Sarayaku territory. The community waged an unprecedented campaign to keep oil extraction at bay, including winning a case before the Inter-American Human Rights Court of the Organization of American States (OAS) against the Ecuadorian state. In 2012, the Court ruled against the government, affirming the rights violations suffered by community members when the military sought to enter their territory by force. In November of this year, the government once again announced plans to auction off oil concessions in early 2016 for lands that overlap Sarayaku territory.

Meanwhile, the official party negotiations for a climate accord have left highly uncertain the inclusion of indigenous rights and human rights language in the binding agreement. The bracketed human rights text is an ominous sign that even basic language of respect for indigenous peoples and their rights is not palatable to governments that seek to continue with business as usual at great peril to the planet and humanity. The current scenario underscores the ongoing denial of decision-makers that somehow view the climate problem as separate from rights of indigenous peoples.

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