Voices from the Amazon

Indigenous peoples in front of climate change

Munduruku, Pará, Brazil ©Thiago Cardoso

Climate change has been affecting the biocultural landscapes of our planet. Despite the denial by the sceptics and malicious, we cannot deny human influences in this transformation process that marks geophysical and ecological structures and global biodiversity, to the point that many scientists claim that we live in a new geological time, the Anthropocene.

Those who think that the indigenous peoples who live in the tropical forests are indifferent and passive to these transformations, are mistaken. From the depths of the forests, from the river banks, from their villages, from the cities, directly from the venues of national congresses and the UN assemblies, representatives of the various peoples are continually denouncing the impacts of climate change on their habitats and culture and signalizing that they must be heard and have effective space in the debates on environment and development, as well as the initiatives to mitigate and adapt to climate change. It is along this path that the voices of the indigenous peoples in the Amazon arise.

As Sônia Guajajara, leader of the largest Brazilian indigenous organization, APIB, says in an emblematic phrase: “to discuss climate change and adaptation without indigenous presence is to deny the right and contribution of the various peoples to this theme, the indigenous territories are the ones that preserve the most and today suffer great threats”1. Along the same path, Estevão, of the Bororo people and member of the Indigenous Committee on Climate Change (CIMC), states that “climate change is already here. And the lands and indigenous peoples have a very important value in these matters”2. According to Manuel Kanunxi, leader of the Manoki people, the coexistence of their people with nature is changing due to the influence of climate change, caused by the development of activities such as the agribusiness. For him “we cannot say where humanity will go”.

This value of the indigenous peoples in the face of climate change can be seen in their ecological knowledge about their traditional territories. Indigenous ecological knowledge is mobilized to understand the environmental changes and to search for new paths in the everyday life of a village. In the film “Where did the swallows go?”3 the Xingu indigenous groups perceive the climate changes through the increasing heat and lack of rain, the brutal impact of deforestation by soybean farms and the construction of dams. In the film we see beautiful moments indicating the perception of the interconnection of biodiversity and climate, “cicadas do not sing anymore announcing the rain and butterflies do not come to warn that the rivers will begin to dry and the swallows are gone”. Such changes also affect ritual cycles and the way work is organized in a Xingu village.

In the Northwest of the Amazon, David Kopenawa, a renowned shaman and yanomami political leader, wrote together with the anthropologist Bruce Albert, the fabulous book “The Fall of the Sky”. In the lines of this book David evokes the creation and destruction of the worlds by the mythical ancestors, at a time when the sky has fallen, and may fall again if we do not manage to reverse the current destructive process. While the white man with his miners and loggers insist on drilling the earth, knocking down trees and releasing their poisonous fumes, the Yanomami shamans strive to hold the forest standing in against the risk society. This warning, in David’s words, sounds like a prophecy that has been given for a long time, but I, or we, westerns are not able to hear… “the white man does not know how to dream, that is why he destroys his house”.

The message is clear, the time when indigenous peoples were seen only as labour or as an object of colonial administration or even as bearers of esoteric knowledge, examples of the Rousseauan “good savages”, are over and are giving place to political agents. Indigenous peoples speak for themselves directly from their own places, analyse and diagnose the transformations of the climate through their specialists, who have an accurate perception of the environment in which they live. So, they struggle for their communal territorial rights and the maintenance of resurgent ecosystem practices against destructive projects, affirming the possibility of inhabiting other worlds on the path of living well.

This message has little by little been understood by the western people, who increasingly recognize the active and central role of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon in the debate on climate change. The Guardian, for example, has been publishing a research series that concludes that the indigenous communities of the tropics, especially the Amazon, have a central role in maintaining forest carbon stock and mitigating global emissions4. According to a recent report, the indigenous peoples and local communities manage at least 24 percent of the total carbon stored above ground in the world’s tropical forests5. These studies draw attention to the importance of recognizing the territorial rights of these communities. Still the official institutions as the IPCC6, in their Assessment Report, take note of the incommensurability of traditional knowledge to the development of bases for adaptation strategies in response to environmental and social changes due to climate7.

However, despite this growing recognition, indigenous peoples’ observations and assessments of climate change remain relatively inaccessible to the IPCC process, mainly due to linguistic and sociocultural barriers, but also to the remnants of coloniality of knowledge that still persist in the western environmental governance. Thus, for the most part, the knowledge and voice of indigenous peoples are invisible or marginalized in the face of the scientific discourse and National State policies. In this way, the scientists and specialists fail to observe and consider the wealth of ways of building the landscape and managing the terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity by these traditional peoples, as well as their strategies for perceiving and dealing with large-scale transformations. As we continue on this path, we lose the opportunity to learn from the diversity of ways of life, from the differences in socio-ecological knowledge, memories, practices and experiences that each indigenous group establish with their places and landscapes.

About this point Ailton Krenak, a renowned indigenous leader from Brazil, makes us think about the possibilities of intercultural and inter-scientific dialogue and the care we take to deal with climate change together with indigenous peoples. For him,

The global changes affect several regions of the planet and of course affect the places were each of the indigenous communities live, affecting the memory of those places where our people have developed ways of perception about the ecosystems and environments. This memory confers with many reports that the climate panel publishes and that is very present in our thoughts but little in our hearts. People take these reports as statistics rather than a qualitative loss of our way of life and connection with the earth”.

Published in http://deepforestfoundation.com/journal/voices-from-the-amazon

1 See the film “vozes indígenas num clima em mudança” (http://diplomatique.org.br/vozes-indigenas-num-clima-em-mudanca/)

2 Training course in Climate Change and Political Incidence (http://www.socioambiental.org)

3 In portuguese, “Para onde foram as andorinhas?”S ee in https://vimeo.com/179228552

4 Watts, Jonathan, Indigenous rights are key to preserving forests, climate change study finds. The Guardian, November 2016. Parry, Bruce. Why land rights for indigenous peoples could be the answer to climate change. The Guardian, November 2016. Taylor, Matthew. Protect indigenous people to help fight climate change, says UN rapporteur, October 2017.

5 Toward a Global Baseline of Carbon Storage in Collective Lands, an updated analysis of indigenous peoples and local communities’ contribution to climate change mitigation, November 2016

6 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a scientific-political organization created in 1988 within the United Nations (UN) by initiative of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Its main objective is to synthesize and disseminate the most advanced knowledge on climate change affecting the world today, especially global warming, pointing out its causes, effects and risks to humanity and the environment, and suggesting ways to combat the problems

7 IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.

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