PARIS, FRANCE — It took Diana Ríos more than a week of travel to get from her home in the Ucayali province of Peru, located near the Brazilian border, to Paris for the United Nations conference on climate change.
From her community of Saweto, she first had to travel by boat down the Putaya River to Pucallpa, the regional capital and largest city near her remote village — a journey that on its own takes five days. From there, Ríos boarded a plane to Lima, then a two-day flight to Europe, arriving in Paris just before the start of the conference on November 30.
But it’s more than a long journey. For Ríos, it’s also a dangerous one — her father was killed last year while traveling outside the village, en route to a meeting with the a tribe across the border in Brazil. His body, and those of three of his companions, was found dismembered and strewn throughout the Amazon forest, likely the doing of illegal loggers that frequent the area.
We depend on the forests for everything … It’s our life.
Despite receiving similar threats on her life from loggers, 21-year-old Ríos traveled to Paris to speak about the issues confronting her people — the Ashéninka — who have been fighting for decades to stop illegal logging on their traditional lands. Last year, after the murder of the four community leaders, the Peruvian government finally issued the Ashéninka the official title to their land — but Ríos says that despite the title, and despite the government’s promises to fight deforestation, her people and their traditional way of life are still in danger.
“Nothing has changed,” Ríos told ThinkProgress through a translator. “The illegal loggers are still inside of our territory. One of them actually cleared some area and put up a fence right in our own territory. The government is violating our rights by not providing security. How can you give a title but then not back that title up with the security and the rights around it?”
The rights of indigenous communities has been a contentious topic throughout the Paris climate negotiations. According to a First Nation delegate, any mention of “rights of Indigenous peoples” does not appear in the main text of the current draft agreement, showing up instead only in the agreement’s preamble. This is in spite of the fact that indigenous communities — many of whom depend on the land for subsistence and cultural traditions — tend to be some of the first communities directly impacted by climate change.
But to Ríos and the Ashéninka, the threat of climate change is simply one more menace that hangs above their way of life. The Ashéninka’s traditional lands encompass 80,000 hectares (about 197,600 acres) of the Peruvian Amazon — an area three times the size of the country of the Maldives. Within those boundaries live 30 families, some 150 people total — each family with between seven to eight children. Pointing up at the cavernous roof of Le Bourget’s civil society space, Ríos contrasted the space with the homes in Sawetto: “We live in houses that are made of wood and thatched roofs, but they are open,” she said. “They are not closed, like this. We prefer to live in open spaces.”
The Ashéninka have lived in those open spaces for generations, living off of small farms and hunting within the Amazon forest for subsistence.
“We depend on the forests for everything,” Ríos said. “It’s our life.” The forests also serve as an important spiritual element or the Ashéninka — it’s where they communicate with their ancestors.
But the Ashéninka aren’t the only ones to see value in the trees that surround Saweto — Amazonian forests of Peru are home to some of the world’s last supplies of big-leaf mahogany trees, valuable hardwood that can fetch upwards of $11,000 a tree at market. In the early 2000s, the Peruvian government passed Forest Law 27308, which paved the way for an influx of logging concessions — some of which overlapped with the Ashéninka’s traditional territory.
Ashéninka leaders would approach the loggers and try to get them to leave, but were consistently rebuffed by both the loggers and the government.
“Neither the government, nor the loggers, paid attention to us. When we would confront them, they would say, ‘You don’t have a title, so you have no right to tell us to leave,’” Ríos said.
According to Ríos, confrontations with the loggers grew increasingly threatening — culminating, in 2014, in her father’s murder along with three others. Following the murders, the men’s wives and daughters made the five-day trip to Pucallpa to demand answers. The government is still dragging their heels in the investigation, claiming they lack the resources.
The blood spilled, however, did spur the government to finally grant the Ashéninka their land title in September of 2015 — more than a decade after the Ashéninka issued their first formal complaint.
Still, according to Ríos, little has changed. The loggers continue to encroach on their land, sending threats to their people. The day that Ríos spoke to ThinkProgress in Paris, she said that her mother had just received a death threat from loggers.
The reality of the Ashéninka’s situation contrasts sharply with the Peruvian government’s official stance at the Paris talks — and at the previous Conference of the Parties, which was held in Lima last year. Despite signing a pledge with Norway to reduce net deforestation to zero by 2021 during the 2014 COP, deforestation rates in the country have spiked in recent years due to a lack of governmental oversight.
“I’m here, and I’ve seen the government say how important indigenous people are for the land and the forests, but nothing has changed in my community,” Ríos said. “We don’t want words or paper. What we need to see is action. It’s one thing to say indigenous are important in saving the forests, but then show us that in the field.”
Nationally, Peru has pledged to reduce carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030 — and many of those reductions are expected to come through the forestry sector. The Amazon rainforest acts as a massive carbon sink, sequestering more than 2 billion tons of carbon a year.
How can you give a title but then not back that title up with the security and the rights around it?
But more than one-fifth of the carbon stored in the Amazon basin is contained in forests that overlap with indigenous territories, yet lack legal protection from the government. Studies have shown that in areas where government protection exists, indigenous communities are able to better manage their traditional lands and forests, sequestering more carbon than in areas where those protections are lacking.
“Logging concessions that overlap with traditional territories are putting communities all over the Amazon at risk,” Ríos said. “The government really needs to recognize that issue and annul those concessions that are overlapping land.”
To Ríos, it’s a question of misplaced government priorities — the logging concessions, she says, are more profitable for the government, but only if the government takes the short-term approach.
“Money comes and goes,” she said. “But the trees — and the oxygen they give — will last. What the state doesn’t recognize is that saving trees is something you have for generations.”