Three in the morning is when many of the Kichwa Indigenous people wake up, to sit together in the Ecuadorian Amazon and share tobacco and other herbs before taking to their chacras – farm fields – and starting their days. It is in this time, shortly before the light comes, when their ancestral stories are told and retold, to ensure the information therein will survive for future generations.
The Kichwa, like many Indigenous groups in the Amazon, are caught in the middle of past and present realities. On the one hand, they’re the recipients of reverse migration from cities, with former community members and other urbanites returning to their traditional food systems and healing practices; on the other, Kiwcha elders, who in past generations lived to ages well over 100, now often die in their 60s. And while “we want to strengthen the economy, we want to promote industry,” said Dary Aguinda, president of the Kichwa Amukina Women’s Association, their organic fruits and vegetables are often undervalued in markets compared to produce enlarged through use of pesticides.
The reality Aguinda describes could be said to reflect that of the Amazon biome as a whole: in the trepid throes of transition, struggling to hold onto the health of its past while navigating into a future that demands – and desires – economic profitability, with all the wrinkles of its integration into global systems smoothed out.
Is it possible, to preserve this precious biome’s ecological and cultural identity while also carrying it forward into a world that places increasing demands on its resources?
Over three days, GLF Amazonia: The Tipping Point – an online conference of scientific, political and cultural presentations and discussions from almost 280 speakers – sought to pinpoint solutions for how this dichotomous challenge can be resolved. In the first two days, a slew of such tactics were identified: local and satellite mapping, access to technology and Internet, agroforestry, smallholder inclusion in deforestation-free policies, training of local firefighters, more private investment and finance, and many more. (Read wrap-ups of the first two days here and here.)
But the culmination of the event leapt to the umbrella “solution,” or rather, the foundation that must be in place in order to ensure the survival of the world’s largest rainforest: improved leadership and political will at all levels that puts the life of the Amazon and its Indigenous inhabitants at the forefront of enforceable policy.
“There’s an urgent need for decision-makers globally, and particularly in the region, to act now to avoid deforestation, particularly in areas already reaching tipping points,” said Carlos Nobre, co-chair of the UN Science Panel for the Amazon and foremost expert on the biome.
“The Amazon is undergoing irreversible shifts to other degraded states of vegetation and landscape configurations, putting at risk essential services provided by the Amazon for local, regional and global people.”
In a short speech summarizing the state of the biome, Nobre, who coined the concept of the Amazon’s ‘tipping point’ decades ago, noted the many changes already taking place: dry seasons that are three to four weeks longer than in the 1980s, average temperatures that are 2 to 3 degrees warmer, decreased rainfall, a marked reduction in evapotranspiration and water recycling, and, most worryingly, degraded areas now emitting more carbon than they capture.
If the Amazon biome collectively reaches its tipping point – that being the point at which it dries into a grassland-like ecosystem – 30 percent of the forest will still remain, due to the rainfall coming down from the Andes, according to Nobre. However, this 60 to 70 percent loss would result in the release of more than 250 billion tons of carbon, accelerating climate change and a cascade of other ecological catastrophes around the world, including the rise of more emerging infectious diseases such as COVID-19. “The situation appears to be dire,” he warned.
In addition to calling for more leadership, he stressed that existing development paradigms need to be reconfigured to cause less environmental harm, and that Indigenous and local knowledge on how to use the Amazon’s agricultural, aquatic and agroforested systems must underpin these paradigm shifts.
Globally, Indigenous peoples receive less than 1 percent of all climate mitigation aid, despite being the guardians of 80 percent of the world’s remaining forest biodiversity.
Ruben Lubowski, chief natural resource economist for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), echoed the dependency of successful policy change on the inclusion of Indigenous peoples when speaking at the event’s launch of the Green Gigaton Challenge, a new initiative that aims to mobilize finance to support the reduction of a gigaton of emissions annually until 2025 through forest conservation and restoration.
Between 2004 and 2012, production of agricultural commodities in the Amazon increased, yet conservation of the biome still improved, he said, proving that development can safely occur with proper policy. But when political changes and rollbacks of law enforcement and funding began to occur thereafter, any continuation of emissions reductions was linked to the establishment of protected areas and Indigenous territories, which currently cover about 45 percent of the Amazon.
“When talking about scale, the really important issue is that we’re driving change at a systemic, holistic level,” he said. “A lot of the durability [of conservation] is a testament to the role of Indigenous peoples in protecting their lands in the face of massive challenges, particularly during the Bolsonaro administration in recent years.”
“Protection of forests goes hand in hand with policies, and especially policies to safeguard rights of vulnerable groups like Indigenous communities,” said Maria Victoria Suarez Davalos, a program officer for UN Environment’s REDD+ program that’s co-leading the Green Gigaton Challenge. These rights, she said, range from land and tenure to participatory, financial, and the most basic right to a voice.
Legislation is currently moving in the opposite direction, though, with land theft and deforestation of Indigenous territories on the rise. Selma Dealdina, executive director of the National Coordination of Quilombola Rural Black Communities (CONAQ), described how mining projects in the Brazilian state of Pará is threatening 800 families from being expelled from their lands – an illustration of the “state of war” the Brazilian government has declared on Indigenous peoples. Globally, deaths of environmental defenders are 40 percent Indigenous.
“Institutional and structural racism excludes Indigenous and black peoples from processes so that we cannot stay in our territories that we have occupied for a long, long time,” said Dealdina. “We try to preserve so that water isn’t polluted, trees are not chopped down, protection of land continues.”
“You cannot have mining without destroying the land,” said Manuel Pulgar Vidal, former Minister of Environment of Peru. “It has created serious wounds in the Amazon.”
The final day of the event also saw the release of a statement entitled “Protect Amazonia! Life is One and in Our Hands” prepared by Indigenous leaders and organizations as a united call for global leaders to address the emergency of protecting the Amazon and its Indigenous lands. The statement, which will be taken to COP 26, calls for the following eight actions:
- Resolve legal and land-tenure insecurity
- Adopt the One Health approach
- Grow a just, equitable and sustainable recovery from COVID-19
- Coordinate protection and restoration of the Amazon
- Signatories to the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity to work together on a coherent framework of action
- Corporate leaders must take scientific advice and meet ambitious targets for carbon neutrality and zero deforestation
- Importing markets and consumers must ensure companies comply with human and environmental rights
- Civil-society organizations to unite for the Amazon and its peoples
Political leaders who spoke on the last day repeatedly called upon the need for new economic models – circular economies, bioeconomies, renewable energy transitions, ecotourism – in order to put the biome on a track toward survival rather than destruction.
“All Amazonian governments have a huge challenge for the transition to sustainable production and consumption,” said Luis Hidalgo Okimura, governor of Peru’s Madre de Dios region. “It is based on a concept that combines agricultural production that’s sustainable and economically feasible with better preservation of the forest, to facilitate sustainable development that improves the livelihood of the population and also environmental protection.”
“The Amazon requires a model that assumes the rainforest is going to be healthy, standing and strong, and respect for the rights of the peoples there,” summarized Marina Silva, former minister of environment of Brazil.
Silva classified the initiatives needed to achieve such a model into three groups: command and control to fight illegal activities and exploitation in the Amazon, territorial regulations that protect the Amazon from deforestation and demarcate Indigenous lands, and actions that support good policymaking, such as technical and scientific agencies like the UN Science Panel for the Amazon co-led by Carlos Nobre.
“This is the time to rethink how we are going to work in a different way to develop techniques based on what nature has shown us,” said Benki Piyãko, a leader of Peru’s Asháninka peoples. “As Indigenous peoples… we have proven that without the land we are nothing, without the knowledge we are nothing.”