By Robin Gomes
Several indigenous peoples’ organizations of Amazonia have raised an alarm that their rights are being increasingly threatened, with a spike in the murder of indigenous rights activists in 2020. Indigenous organizations have declared a human rights emergency for indigenous defenders of the Amazon and are demanding justice.
The Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA), a body that oversees nine Amazonian indigenous organizations, raised the alarm last week, noting a 67% increase in the number of murders of indigenous rights leaders in 2020, compared to 2019.
202 indigenous activists killed in 2020
In the “Declaration of Emergency of Human Rights for indigenous defenders of the Amazon: Blood in the jungle, we demand justice,” launched on April 14, COICA stated that in 2020 there were 202 murders of leaders who worked in the defence of the territory, environment and the rights of indigenous peoples in countries like Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. This would mean that every two days, on average, an indigenous rights defender dies in the Amazonia. In 2019, 135 indigenous environmental and land rights activists lost their lives.
"The dramatic increase in murders in the context of the pandemic has put indigenous defenders and their communities at risk while putting the world's largest rainforest and the biodiversity we protect at risk," said José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, Coordinator General of COICA. He demanded that governments and international bodies take actions to protect defenders and communities, adding that otherwise they would become "accomplices of an ethnocide." He pointed out that the trend has not ended with 2020. In the first quarter of 2021, there were at least 16 indigenous murders (Colombia and Peru), who defended the rights of indigenous peoples and the environment.
“Behind the murders of indigenous human rights defenders and mother nature, there are structural problems directly linked to the increase in extractive activities that respond to the interests of corporations with state agreements, which threaten the physical and cultural integrity of our peoples,” said Oscar Daza Gutierrez, human rights coordinator of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC).
For his part, Jiribati Ashaninka, President of another Peruvian indigenous peoples’ organization, ORAU, said the deaths of rights defenders are a record that the state is not clear about, and that the Peruvian government has not taken specific protection measures for the activists. "They are killing us, and we demand urgent action," he said.
COICA noted that the situation shows a systematic violation of human rights for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, aggravated in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This threatens the survival of those who inhabit and protect the most biodiverse basin in the world, it said.
In their declaration, COICA representatives raised the issue with several bodies and governments, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues of the United Nations, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the governments of the 9 countries of he Amazonia - Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.
The COICA appeal came days ahead of the 20th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII20) that kicks off on Monday. The April 19 to 30 session has as its theme, “Peace, justice and strong institutions: the role of indigenous peoples in implementing Sustainable Development Goal 16.” UN Secretary General Jose Antonio Guterres is scheduled to deliver a video message at the inaugural session. Because of the pandemic, the proceedings will take place in a hybrid format with mostly virtual (online) meetings.
Pope and the Church
Pope Francis and the Catholic Church have stood by the indigenous peoples of Amazonia. For a more effective pastoral care of these people, the Pope convened a special Pan-Amazonian synod of bishops in the Vatican in October 2019.
In his Apostolic Exhortation, Querida Amazonia (“Beloved Amazonia”), which sums up the Synod findings, the Pope vigorously demands justice for some 2.5 million indigenous people of the region. In the document, he calls for the protection of their lives, their cultures, their lands, and the Amazon river and rainforests, against the “crime and injustice” being perpetrated in the region by powerful economic interests, both national and international, that risk destroying the people and the environment.
The concern of Pope Francis and the Latin American Church for the indigenous people of the Amazonia led to the founding in 2014 of the Pan Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) for the promotion of the rights and dignity of these people. The project, involving nine local Churches of the Amazon region, has the backing of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference, CELAM.
"The Amazon is very important for humanity, for life ... it helps stabilize the climate, it is a source of life," said REPAM president, Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo. "Mistreating the Amazon forest is not only mistreating the Indigenous people who live inside it, but it is destroying their culture and their place. These peoples are the guardians of the Amazon forest. They have great wealth when it comes to spirituality, something that has been nurtured by their cultures," the cardinal said. He spoke at a virtual international Amazon Climate Forum on April 15, ahead of the April 22 and 23 Leaders Summit on Climate called by United States president Joe Biden, to which he has invited some 40 leaders.
On April 13, the Brazilian bishops' conference and REPAM-Brazil released a letter that expressed their concern about a possible agreement between Brazil and the United States for the protection of the Amazon.
A letter by retired Bishop Erwin Kräutler, president of REPAM-Brazil, and Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, president of the Brazilian bishops' commission for the Amazon, lamented that the US government was negotiating with the Brazilian government on the protection of the Amazon biome without transparency or the participation of people of the Amazon.
“Any agreement that has the Amazon as its core requires a debate with Amazonian populations, which are not being consulted," they wrote.
Reuters has reported that negotiations between Brazil and the US for an agreement to reduce deforestation in the Amazon have come to a halt. The Brazilian government has asked for the release of financial resources in advance to be able to improve the protection of the forest and develop sustainable projects in the region, while the U.S. insists on seeing a decline in deforestation numbers before handing over any funds. According to local news reports, the Brazilian government has asked the U.S. government for $1 billion in aid to reduce deforestation.