Eye on the Amazon

The Human Side of the Climate Change Equation

Kayapo chief Raoni Metuktire and Maria Leusa Munduruku. Photo credit: Fabio Nascimento / Greenpeace

While government officials inside COP21 conference rooms just outside Paris were reviewing the cost-benefit analyses of cutting down on emissions or debating the numerical semantics of the warming of the earth, the human side of climate change and environmental destruction took center stage just a few kilometers south at the Maison des Metallos on the weekend of December 5-6th.

Grassroots leaders and affected citizens from around the world testified at the Rights of Nature Tribunal before a panel of international judges. Whether speaking about fracking in North Dakota, hydroelectric dams in Brazil, or oil exploration in Ecuador and Nigeria, speakers all echoed the same concern: not only are current corporate practices of resource extraction and environmental degradation destroying the Earth and its delicate ecosystems, they are destroying entire communities and ways of life, particularly those of indigenous people.

Kandi Mossett's voice began to crack when her slide presentation on oil fracking in North Dakota's Forth Berthhold Indian Reservation displayed a photo of a smiling young woman. Mossett, an outspoken leader with the Indigenous Environmental Network, had been hard-faced until then, speaking sternly at the "Rights of Nature Tribunal" about the environmental harm the practice had wreaked. But it was the picture of a friend who had recently died of a heroin overdose, that overwhelmed her. She continued onto the next slide – a collage of other women's photos, all fallen to drugs, mainly heroin.

"This is what has been happening in my community since fracking began," she whimpered, adding that reports of violence against women and rape had gone up by 161 percent, a phenomenon she attributed in part to the "man camps" that have been set up to accommodate oil workers. The fracking money that had poured into the reservation – once promised as a marker of "progress" – had brought with it a drug epidemic and organized crime.

Speaking of the impact of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam being built in the Xingu Basin of the Brazilian Amazon, Antonia Melo, a coordinator of the Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre, explained that the megaproject had destroyed the lifeblood of the region's traditional fishing communities – the Xingu River.

"The river has no more fish," she said plainly, explaining that whereas before a fisherman could catch 200 kilos of fish in six days, they were now lucky to catch 10 or 20. This, in a community whose rituals and traditions have been closely tied to the rhythms of the river for generations.

"The Brazilian government routinely lies and calls this project development," stated another leader, Maria Leusa Munduruku.

She stated that although the Munduruku have declared the Tapajos region a "sacred space" for their community in recognition of the close spiritual tie that these original inhabitants of the Amazon have with their environment, the government has failed to respect her people. Rather, the communities of the Tapajos charge that the Brazilian government, in forging ahead with the São Luiz do Tapajós megadam, has violated the International Labor Organization's Convention 169, which mandates consultation with indigenous people around issues affecting their communities.

Maria Leusa concluded her testimony with an indictment: "The Brazilian government must be punished for what it is doing to kill the indigenous people of Brazil."

The day after the Tribunal, far from the Tapajós Basin of the Amazon, the Munduruku leaders joined with indigenous leaders from throughout the Americas at the Basin de la Villette in Northern Paris for a flotilla. As they paddled rhythmically down the canal in traditional clothing under the grey Parisian sky, onlookers hooted and howled, belting out the yelps and whistles familiar to their particular tribes, and for a few moments everything gave way to ceremony and solidarity.

At a press conference just after the event, the groups presented three documents stating their joint position on fossil fuels and the role of indigenous communities amidst the threat of climate change and environmental destruction.

"We are the protectors of the river," said Kayapo chief Raoni Metuktire, also a leader in the fight against Belo Monte, wearing the traditional headdress and lip plate that mark him as a man of honor. He then illustrated the critical role that this ancestral connection to the water can play in addressing global warming.

"When we protect the rivers, the water, the rain, we are protecting what cools mother earth, what soothes mother earth."

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