"Sometimes I feel we Indians are alone in this fight to protect our nature – everyone’s nature.”
With many eyes on indigenous activists protesting an oil pipeline in the US state of North Dakota, these words, by Brazilian indigenous land rights and environmental activist Maria Valdenice Nukini, also sum up the battle for the environment that is raging in Latin America.
Last year the Brazilian government proposed a constitutional amendment that would overturn legal protections for Indian reservations, opening up the possibility of private agricultural and mining projects on native land, projects that have already decimated so much of Latin America’s tropical rainforests.
With Latin America already deep in a development frenzy, this legislation is a blow, not only for Brazil’s indigenous population whose lands are under increasing threat, but for the environment and for us all.
According to the World Resources Institute, protected indigenous lands are among the most successful methods to fight deforestation and climate change. Remove those protections and environmental catastrophe is unavoidable. No wonder then, that indigenous land rights activists are at the forefront of this battle for the environment – a battle that has become increasingly deadly.
According to the World Resources Institute, protected indigenous lands are among the most successful methods to fight deforestation and climate change.
Two years ago, London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness published their report, Deadly Watch, tracking the recorded killings of activists over a twelve-year period. The statistics are alarming:
147 eco-activists were killed in 2014 compared to 51 in 2002.
Between 2002-2013, at least 908 activists were killed.
Ten more disappeared in suspicious circumstances.
Only ten convictions were recorded in connection with the deaths.
Things have only gotten worse since. In fact, last year was the worst on record, with 185 activists killed. That’s more than three people killed per week for defending their land and the planet.
Although spread across 35 countries, the bulk of these killings (80 per cent) occurred in Latin America. In Brazil, by far the leading country for activist deaths, the rapidly-disappearing Amazon is a major hotspot, with landowners (who want to appropriate indigenous territory) and loggers the main perpetrators. However, state agents have also been implicated in the violence.
The major targets –40 per cent of all those killed last year– are indigenous. “If it’s not the oil company, it’s loggers, or people looking for metals, or people who steal our plants," says Maria Valdenice Nukini.
2016 has already seen the murder of high-profile indigenous activists including Berta Caceras, a prominent critic of a hydroelectric dam project in Honduras, who was shot to death in her own home along with her brother, and Lesbia Janeth Urquía, who was active in opposing the privatisation of rivers in La Paz.
Both were members of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (Copinh). So was Nelson Garcia who was also killed not long after a violent eviction of an indigenous community by Honduran security forces. He was shot by unidentified men as he returned home.
Indigenous activists should not have to lose their lives trying to save their communities. We can help them by making the connection between their land rights, environmental degradation, and rampant capitalism.
Deforestation in South America is increasing at such an alarming rate that if it continues, there will be no rainforests left at all, including the Amazon, within 100 years. And yet, the authorities continue to grant permits to loggers, miners, and agriculturalists.
On an economic level this makes sense. Poverty is rife in Latin America and exploiting natural resources generates income and helps pay off state debts. This problem with this is not only the immediate environmental destruction but the shortsightedness; once these forest are gone, they are gone for good, which will only increase poverty.
This is not just an issue for Latin America, but for the entire world to solve. Not least because our own eating habits are exacerbating the destruction. According to Greenpeace, cattle ranching accounts for 80 percent of the Amazon’s deforestation, with the bulk of cleared land being used to grow soy crops to feed livestock. Agricultural and grazing land now threatens 650,000 Brazilian Indians in over 200 tribes.
Within 100 years of colonisation, 90 per cent of the indigenous population of the Americas had been wiped out.
Land rights and environmentalism are inextricably linked. From its very beginnings, colonialism –and its offspring capitalism– was an assault on indigenous populations and nature. Within 100 years of colonisation, 90 per cent of the indigenous population of the Americas had been wiped out.
With their land again under imminent threat, native Americans are once more bearing the brunt of extreme capitalism. As Noam Chomsky notes, “It’s a kind of incredible irony that all over the world the leading forces in trying to prevent a race to disaster are the Indigenous communities.”
But they can’t do it alone. Now that climate change has unarguably asserted itself, not as a threat to our future, but as something happening here and now, supporting land rights for indigenous communities not only goes some way to atoning for the ills of colonialism, it promotes human rights while striking a blow against environmental catastrophe.
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