Eye on the Amazon

Defending Indigenous Lands, Territories, and Resources at the UN

"Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied, or otherwise used or acquired." UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Article 26.1)

More than 1,000 representatives of indigenous peoples traveled to the United Nations Headquarters in New York in late April to participate in the 17th Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). Importantly, this year the forum's focus was "indigenous peoples' collective rights to lands, territories, and resources," an issue near and dear to Amazon Watch's heart and work.

Amazon Watch supported and accompanied Amazonian leaders at the forum – including an indigenous women's delegation from the Ecuadorian Amazon – to call for respect and protection of their lives, cultures, and ancestral territories and an end to the harassment and death threats that they routinely face for their relentless opposition to the companies and governments driving the expansion of the fossil fuel frontier in the Amazon.

This delegation follows the inspiring marches, mobilizations, and set of demands presented to the Ecuadorian government by Women Defenders of the Amazon Against Extraction last March. It was an opportunity for the women to share their concerns about threats, stories of resistance to industrial expansion, their demands to the Ecuadorian government (which plans to open up six million acres of roadless, primary rainforest to new oil extraction), and their visions for permanent protection of their ancestral territories (including Sarayaku's Kawsak Sacha or "Living Forest" proposal). It was also an opportunity to reconnect with and continue building bridges and relationships between indigenous peoples' of the Americas and across Mother Earth.

We were inspired by incredible women from Standing Rock to the Amazon who reminded us of the interconnections between indigenous rights, human rights, women's rights, and nature's rights at WECAN's event, "Indigenous Women Protecting and Defending Rights, Land and Climate." The women shared stories of impacts from extreme energy, strategies for keeping fossil fuels in the ground including divestment from the banks who finance destruction, and restored hope that together we will win! Watch this event featuring: Michelle Cook (Diné; human rights lawyer), Kandi Mossett (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara; Indigenous Environmental Network) and Gloria Ushigua (Sapara; President and founder of Ashiñwaka, the Association of Sapara Women, Ecuador), Miriam CIsneros (Kichwa; Sarayaku), and more.

We also partnered with indigenous nations, indigenous-led organizations, and NGO allies including Cultural Survival, IFIP, Terra Mater, IEN, WECAN, Shipibo Conibo Center, Land is Life, and One Planet One Future Gallery to coordinate side events and high-level meetings inside the UN, as well as public events and receptions in New York City.

Together with Cultural Survival, we held a side event on Indigenous-Led Conservation featuring Miriam Cisneros, President of Sarayaku, who also presented a formal statement at the UNPFII, where she said:

"I come with the strength of my grandmother and grandfathers and with the wisdom of our mother forest to say that now is the time to protect the rainforest. I've come to here to recommend that the UN declare our rainforest as a sacred living forest for all humanity because it is the last refuge of life. For us the mining, oil, and logging companies signify death and the disappearance of our our species. I ask for peace for humanity and the protection of our Kawsak Sacha."

Amazonian leaders, including Alicia Cawiya (Waorani), Manari Ushigua (Sapara), and Ronald Suarez (Shipibo), also presented formal statements and made recommendations to the UN expressing concerns about oil drilling in Yasuní National Park and the impacts on the Tagaeri and Taromenane, indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation, the threats of oil drilling, the environmental crisis on the spirits of the rainforest, and the threats and killings of earth defenders, the majority of which are indigenous peoples.

According to the UN and countless reports, "Indigenous lands make up around 20 percent of the earth's territory, but contain 80 percent of the world's remaining biodiversity – a clear sign that indigenous peoples are the most effective stewards of the environment." Yet, indigenous earth defenders are threatened, criminalized and sometimes killed for doing so. According to Global Witness, four earth defenders are killed every week!

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, highlighted this concerning trend in her statement to the UNPFII. "While existing studies have addressed the situation of attacks against environmental human rights defenders," she said, "further analysis of the individual as well as collective impacts on indigenous peoples is needed. For instance, when indigenous traditional, cultural, or spiritual leaders are criminalized, this has severe consequences for entire indigenous communities and the continuation of traditions and social, political, and cultural institutions."

Considering the threats to indigenous earth defenders, including Vicki herself, who has defamed by the President as a "terrorist" list in her native Philippines for her work, I couldn't agree more. We stand in solidarity with her and the hundreds of indigenous human rights defenders facing intimidation and harassment by the Philippine government. To show your support for her, sign this international petition.

Following a very full week of events and meetings, we partnered with the One Planet One Future Gallery to host a reception to meet and greet Amazon healers and leaders, including our friends Eda Zavala, Manari Ushigua, and Ronald Suarez. It was truly a beautiful gathering of friends and supporters who are committed to protecting the Amazon and earth defenders. It was also a stark reminder of the threats to Amazonian defenders and why it is so crucial that we stand with them to protect the sacred.

During the reception, we learned of yet another cycle of violence affecting indigenous communities in the Amazon, linked to the longstanding denial of justice that indigenous peoples have faced. Ronald Suarez, President of the Shipibo governing council (COSHIKOX) received the horrific and tragic news of the killing of Maestra Olivia Arevalo, a Shipibo elder and medicine woman, by one of her foreign students from Canada. We all felt the pain and loss of this living library and gathered in a circle to support Ronald. Amazon Watch immediately released a statement condemning the murder of Maestra Olivia and is working with COSHIKOX to seek justice for her. We later learned that the cycle of violence continued with the subsequent murder of the Canadian, which then became an excuse for o politicians and the media against the Shipibo and indigenous peoples across Peru as "savages." We will be supporting the Shipibo in the weeks ahead as they work through this tragic and difficult time.

While local, national, and international laws exist to guarantee the collective rights to lands, territories, and resources of indigenous peoples, there is still so much to do to ensure true respect and actual implementation of these laws. One place to start is by implementing Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) in all policy and industrial development projects that have the potential to impact indigenous peoples' rights or territories. To do so will result in the protection of cultures, languages, ecosystems, and our climate.

Indigenous peoples have the solutions needed to protect the Amazon and the climate for humanity and all life. They have been doing so for thousands of years. They cannot do this, however, if their basic rights are threatened. We are honored to stand with them in defense of rights, lands, territories, and resources.

Join Us!

For more information on the 17th Session of the UNPFII, including collected statements by the participants, please visit the site of DoCip, the Indigenous Peoples' Centre for Documentation, Research, and Information.

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