Even though indigenous communities make up less than 5% of the global population, they safeguard 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity, 50% of the world’s remaining forests, and almost half of the Earth’s terrestrial stored carbon.
“Many of our actions have been putting Mother Earth through various types of sicknesses. But we also have the opportunity to take responsibility: to envision, how do we wish to solve these problems?”
Chief Ninawa Huni Kui is the president of the Federation of the Huni Kui (which means “true people”) in Acre, Brazil, in the Brazilian Amazon. He represents nearly 15,000 people in 104 villages across 12 indigenous territories. Alongside his role as a healer, Ninawa is an activist for the rights of indigenous people, who he advocates for globally. He is a member of the Alliance of Mother Nature’s Guardians and an advocate for the Global Alliance Against REDD (a controversial carbon trading scheme). He is also the founder of the “Forest University” in the Brazilian Amazon and a University of British Columbia research partner in a Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight project related to decolonial social innovations and is a medicine student at the Amazonian University of Pando, in Bolivia.
You can learn more about Ninawa’s work in this keynote recorded for a conference on education in May 2021.
In 2014, Chief Ninawa visited the U.N.’s climate summit (COP20), in Lima, Peru, to present his peoples’ view on the climate change proposals being tabled at the event and to denounce the Brazilian government’s plans for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). Their main point was that the proposals were false solutions to climate change.
In the state of Acre, REDD had already violated Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization which guarantees indigenous people’s right to free, prior, informed consent and the right to say “No” to projects that affect them. They were not consulted and the project went ahead regardless. Chief Ninawa also claimed that REDD divided indigenous leaders, who were previously united to defend the territories and Mother Earth, by corrupting them with monetary bribes and criminal threats.
In addition, since the REDD pilots were introduced, his community were unable to fish in their own land, to cultivate food or to practice agriculture. All of these activities were declared illegal and people were jailed if they participated in them. Community leaders were being criminalized for opposing the project, and were told that the services provided for education, transportation or healthcare would be suspended if they opposed the project.
In response to Farhana Yamin’s question: “What is the one thing you want to see the COP do?”, Chief Ninawa had this to say:
“The first thing I wish to ask the world leaders is that they leave the oil underground. I wish to communicate for all the leaders that are present in this COP, that all the things that have been discussed and presented in the COP so far, haven’t been providing solutions in any way to the problems that we are facing.
One thing that I wish to see myself one day, but I also wish for my children and my grandchildren to be able to experience and live through, is the moment in which we have our elders, our wise ones from our people, together with the modern scientists of this place, of this part of the world: discussing and tackling concrete solutions for the way that we can exist on Planet Earth.”
There have been preliminary encouraging signs in 2021: the number of deforestation alerts declined year-on-year for two months straight and the number of forest fires in the first nine months of 2021 has fallen from last year (source: AP News). But Indigenous leaders and other critics question Brazil’s President Bolsonaro’s sincerity and say it’s too early to assume that recent data represents a trend.
Despite the immense challenges he faces, including death threats, Chief Ninawa Huni Kui continues to fight for the Amazon forest not just for the indigenous communities, but for all of us.