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Protecting forests to fight climate change

December 5, 2016

With the Cancún Declaration adopted at the Convention on Biological Diversity summit, DW talks to an indigenous leader on how native peoples are defending the Earth's forests - and through that, biodiversity and climate.

Peace indigenous protest in Colombia
Image: Picture-Alliance/AP Photo/F. Vergara Picture-Alliance/AP Photo/F. Vergara

At the 13th meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD CoP13), representatives from more than 190 nations are discussing conservation in Cancun from December 4 to 17.

Already on Saturday (03.12.2016), delegates agreed to adopt the Cancún Declaration to ramp up efforts to protect the world's biodiversity.

At the conference, indigenous groups' role in protecting biodiversity will be among the topics in the spotlight. Leaders from the Amazon region, Congo and Indonesia, among others, are unifying their voices in demanding greater respect and support for their communities, which they believe to be key actors in the fight to protect our planet.

The Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) is one of the main indigenous organizations present at CoP13. Its members believe implementing an indigenous economy model is the only way to ensure a sustainable future. DW talked to COICA's delegate at CoP13 to find out more.

DW: What do you expect from CoP13?

Peru | AIDESEP-President Henderson Rengifo
Rengifo is representing the indigenous organization COICA at CBD COP13Image: AIDESEP/S. Chuquipiondo

Henderson Rengifo: Being aware that we have taken care of our forests since ancestral times, it is very important for us to discuss its biological diversity. Governmental measures through the years have endangered our forests and biodiversity, and at the same time, are putting all of humankind at risk.

We are here in Cancún to show that indigenous communities want to protect their natural resources and their biodiversity, which is essential for life on Earth. We want to impress upon governments that any decision-making on public policies must recognize and take into account indigenous peoples' proposals, in order to promote sustainable development.

Why is the role of indigenous people in protecting biodiversity so important?

Indigenous communities have always respected the law of nature, the life of all beings and the great biological diversity that exists in their territories.

Putaya River in Peru
Indigenous people say they are "guardians of the forests"Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Mejia

Every being and every part of the forest plays a very important role in regulating life in it, and only by caring for all of nature can we insure a safe future for the next generations. 

COICA has helped organized the third Global Canoe action to highlight the importance of indigenous people and local communities in protecting biodiversity. The action is promoted with the phrase, "Indigenous peoples ... have solutions to combat climate change that work."

What are these "solutions that work" to combat climate change?

In Peru alone, 15 million hectares of forest are legally recognized as being indigenous territories, although many more are without recognition. In these territories, we work to create an alternative way of caring for forests, thus helping cool the global warming crisis. Protecting forests is the best solution to fighting climate change.

How does this work?

We not only protect forests, but also manage them properly. We support an indigenous economy based on responsible and sustainable management of resources over time, for instance through agroforestry and harvest of wood.

National economic policies are normally only based on extractive activities such as oil, gas, mining or palm-oil projects that threaten our forests. Governments are not providing real alternatives for indigenous people to manage their forests by adding value to the forests' own resources.

Indigenous group protesting in Brazil
Indigenous groups around the world protest activities that threaten the environment and their livelihoodsImage: Getty Images/AFP/E. So

The indigenous economy is based on traditional indigenous knowledge and values, promoting solidarity over consumerism. It supports non-extractive activities such as agroforestry, bio-industries, aquaculture, community tourism and handicrafts.

Could the indigenous economy be implemented at a global scale?

No, because it is not an economy of scale - but it can help make big changes. We are on the right path, and indigenous people have proposals that will contribute to minimizing and mitigating climate problems. These proposals can also help states plan sustainable development.

If everyone would adopt our way of life, we could fight against climate change - but for that, we have to manage forests sustainably.

Henderson Rengifo is the president of AIDESEP, Peru's largest federation of indigenous Amazon communities. Rengifo is also the delegate of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) at the CBD CoP13.

The interview was conducted by Irene Banos Ruiz.