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Indigenous peoples and climate stability

May 12, 2017

Candido Mezua is an indigenous leader from Panama who was present at the recent violent protests in Brazil. At the climate conference in Bonn, he tells DW why it's crucial for indigenous peoples to defend forests.

Brasilien erste Weltspiele der indigenen Völker Bogenschießen
Image: Reuters/U. Marcelino

The Paris Agreement included indigenous peoples as a key element to improve climate protection. Recent studies have shown that titling land rights to indigenous communities decreases deforestation and forest degradation.

However, indigenous leaders say their land rights are still being violated - which prevents them from properly protecting the forests in which they live. Violent protests in Brasilia in late April have brought back the discussion back to the spotlight, as did a brutal attack on an indigenous tribe in Brazil at the beginning of May, in which a man had his hands cut off.

Candido Mezua, an indigenous leader from Panama, is taking part in the preparatory meeting for COP23 in Bonn, Germany, where DW spoke with him.

Candido Mezua, at preparatory meeting COP23 in Bonn
Mezúa is chief of the Emberá-Wounaan indigenous peopleImage: DW/I. Banos Ruiz

DW: We know forests are important for the climate because they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So how do indigenous peoples contribute to climate protection? 

Candido Mezua: All people living within life systems of tropical forests experience climate change as a daily reality, and represent a key element for climate stability.

We live in line with ancestral climate principles. We know that if we do not protect the spiritual connection with water, forests and animals, mother Earth will die.

If indigenous peoples abandon their traditional way of life, the forests of the Amazonia, of Indonesia or of the Congo basin would disappear. But many people are not aware of those principles, and only see the forest as a source of economic gain that they want to own.

Recent studies show that granting land titles to indigenous peoples helps decrease deforestation. Why is that?

If we still lived in ancestral times when indigenous peoples had total control over the territory and its resources, we would not need those titles. But today, if we do not get title, governments hold control over our territories and can decide what to do with them. This is how they grant licenses to large corporations for mining gold, for extracting oil, for developing large-scale agribusinesses with palm oil or soybean plantations … These monocultures degrade the forest. The countries of the Global South do not realize that we must [preserve forests to] keep the climate stable.

Indigenous people in Ecuador Yasuni National Park
In defending their ancestral lifestyle, indigenous peoples contribute to climate stabilityImage: picture-alliance/wildlife

The delimitation of territories has led to very violent conflicts in Brazil. What is really happening there?

The Brazilian constitution enshrines the land rights of indigenous peoples and the need to delimitate and grant title to their territories. But under the pretext of differing legal interpretations, the government seeks arguments to avoid complying with that constitutional obligation. The Brazilian ministry of agriculture is one of the main promoters of large agribusiness like palm oil and soy. With fewer laws supporting indigenous land rights, it can open the way for more of this business. 

The situation in Brazil is a common reality for all indigenous peoples - from Standing Rock to the far south. We fear that if Brazil reduces indigenous rights, this might serve as a model for other Latin American countries. 

You took part in the protests in Brasilia last April. How did you experience it?

The struggle has no other aim than protecting indigenous lifestyle and forests. We have asked for our constitutional rights to be respected in many peaceful forms, but since the government has not attended to our continuous requests, we had to seek new forms of drawing attention.

In the protest, I saw women carrying their children, scared and crying, I saw young and old people, and I felt the need to raise our voices and let other countries know what is happening there. It is so hard to reach decisionmakers and those responsible for protecting our forests.

Protest against Dakota Access Pipeline
Mezúa also supports the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in their struggle against the Dakota PipelineImage: REUTERS/L. Jackson

Indeed, many were seriously injured during the protest. How did it happen? 

I experienced how fast violence spread. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

Since I was a foreigner there, my friends were protecting me and recommended for me to stay back a bit. "If you go to the front, the government can classify you as a terrorist and you can get imprisoned for life," they told me. Even with that fear, it is hard not to react when you see your brothers being shot at or attacked with tear gas. I wanted, at least, to protect women and children; after all, they will represent us in the next generations.

I wish we could talk with the government and reach an agreement in a peaceful way - but the reality is different.

You are now participating in the pre-COP23 climate meetings in Bonn. What do you expect to achieve through these talks?

Thanks to the support of countries such as France or Norway, we were able to exert pressure for the Paris Agreement to include topics such as the importance of indigenous ancestral knowledge for the sustainable management of forests. Now it is time for implementation. Since we were part of the process, we also have to take an active role in implementing it.

Indigenous people at COP21
Indigenous representatives took active part in the COP21 climate negotiations in ParisImage: DW/N. Pontes

Drawing international attention is crucial. We are more than 300 million indigenous people around the world, and we are stabilizing the global climate. But while we agree on our responsibility, we want to be heard with the same respect as other actors and countries. Who hears us, who speaks up for us? It is our task to come here to the Global North and to make our voices heard.   

Cándido Mezúa is General Chief of the Emberá-Wounaan Region, a member of the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of Panama (COONAPIP) and Secretary of International Relations of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB).

The interview was conducted by Irene Banos Ruiz, and has been edited for length and clarity.