LIMA, PERU — As negotiators face the final days of the U.N. climate negotiations, with the aim of forging a new international agreement next year, protesters marched the streets of host city Lima, demanding protection for indigenous communities of South and Central America and those most vulnerable to climate change.
“We want our coca! We want our maize! We want transnational oil companies out!” they chanted, hoisting colorful puppet versions of the staple crops and emanating an energy far different from the staid atmosphere of the conference rooms. Protesters here say that in order to protect the planet, negotiators have to protect indigenous communities.
“We are out in the streets demanding the government to hear the voices of the people, to hear the voices of the indigenous,” said Miguel Cerda, a full-time activist with the Ecuadorian organization the Yasunidos.
The Yasunidos aim to protect the Yasuni rainforest, and they are in Lima after a treacherous week of travel in which they say they were intimidated repeatedly by armed police on darkened highways who ultimately confiscated their bus. The Yasuni forest is home to more tree species than all those native to North America, as well as two indigenous communities living in voluntary isolation.
Forest protection is an important piece of any international effort on climate change, given that deforestation and forest degradation accounts for 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The rights and safety of the indigenous communities living in those forests is a crucial part of any successful conservation plan.
Yet observers in the negotiating rooms here note that the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program — which provides market incentives for forest protection in developing countries — have been struggling to make substantive progress on Safeguard Information Systems that could provide support for indigenous communities. These safeguards are guidelines and actions intended to ensure that REDD+ activities do no harm to people or the environment such as restricting access for locals to forest products or promoting forest management practices that harm biodiversity.
The Yasunidos, since their founding, have worked in support of an alternate form of forest protection, an innovative plan that would have kept oil under the Yasuni reserve — an estimated 909 million barrels — in the ground in exchange for $3.6 billion from international partners. The group was behind a petition drive earlier this year to trigger a national referendum on President Correa’s decision to back out of the plan after only $13 million was collected.
Correa announced in May that the country would start issuing permits to allow Petroamazonas, a subsidiary of the state-owned oil company, to begin constructing roads and infrastructure in preparation for drilling, just weeks after the National Electoral Council deemed only 359,762 out of 850,000 collected signatures legitimate — shy of the 5 percent of voters required.
This is devastating for the environment, and the livelihoods of the country’s vulnerable indigenous people, the Yasunidos say.
According to experts, the original initiative would have been an innovative arrangement. Rather than a program like REDD+, which is based on market incentives, the fund might have changed the relationship between developing and developed countries in pursuit of forest protection.
“[It would have been a] new global legal institution that transcended national and private interests,” former Ecuadorian Energy and Mining Minister Alberto Acosta wrote last year. “It would be a custodian for the atmosphere and biological diversity, areas in which all humanity has a stake.”
The challenges the Yasunidos faced to get to Lima — particularly in the same week that a major indigenous leader working to oppose mining near indigenous lands was found dead — highlights the ongoing need to connect human rights concerns with international forest protection programs.
“[Indigenous people] are asking our government for land rights, to be protected. The government is constantly telling them they will give them land rights, but they are always lying to them,” said Gloria Rodriguez, a local secretary who joined in the protest. She is not a member of an indigenous community, but she said she was marching because “Almost everyone in Peru has indigenous blood. We are more indigenous than almost any other country, so we are all relatives, and it is a problem for all of us.”