Indigenous People
Damiao and Cosmo of the Huni Kuin tribe with their interpreter Audrey Paranque (Photo credit: Sagar Dhara)

For the last ten days I have opened the COP26 daily programme website each morning to search for the events that may interest me. And I have been overwhelmed by the deluge that hits me. They run mostly like this: Presidency Event: The role of parliaments in climate and nature policy, Meeting Room 4; Multilateral Assessment (MA) working group Part I, Meeting Rooms 5 & 7; Black & Green Ambassadors: Delivering Change in an Unforgettable Year, Action Hub. COP26 is so huge that it has taken me 10 days to figure out the ground plan of the conference layout. It is just too complicated.

If searching for events that interest me was difficult, seeking out the feeble voice of the climate-affected in the mass of over 10,000 people who throng the blue zone daily has been even more daunting. Yet, I found a few distinct voices and here are their stories.

Huni Kuins’ battle for survival in Acre, Brazil

Acre, a Brazilian state that borders Peru, has ambitious plans to become a neutral carbon state by 2036. A glossy government pamphlet distributed at COP26 states that by 2035 Acre state will reduce greenhouses emissions by 43% and regenerate 7.41 million hectares of forest. But Damiao de Araaujo Braz Kaxinawá and Cosmo de Braz Kaxinawá of the Huni Kuin (literally means true people) tribe from Igarapé do Caucho village, located deep in the Amazon forests of Acre, have a different tale.

The Huni Kuin live along the rivers that crisscross their traditional lands that spread on both sides of the Brazil-Peru border. The Huni Kuins are truly an endangered tribe as they number just 500 in Brazil and another 2,000 in Peru. Damio and Cosmo are among the very few of their tribe who speak Portuguese other than their native language-Kaxinawá.

The Huni Kuins maintain close kinship ties and rarely travel outside the forested lands reserved for them. They hunt, collect fruit, fish and farm in their reservation and are self contained. In Cosmo’s words, “The forest gives us everything we need, so we live close to nature.”

The seemingly idyllic life of the Huni Kuins is about to be jolted by timber loggers, cattle ranchers, prospectors for gold mining and other minerals, who have their eye on lands the Huni Kuins consider sacred. And the recently enacted National Law 490 will help the latter as it allows for acquiring indigenous lands that lack registered title deeds. Like other indigenous people, the Huni Kuins have been living on their lands for centuries without title deed papers. They are now suddenly confronted with the demand for producing title deeds. They are not well versed with dealing with bureaucratic procedures and are confused about how to secure their lands.

And now they hear of a second looming threat—climate change. The vagaries of rainfall in the coming years, higher temperatures, forest fires, water depletion in their rivers may play havoc with their farming. Cosmo wonders whether the fish and small game will be as plentifully available as it is now. And Damiao asks, “I don’t understand why this is happening to us. What did we do wrong? We lived our lives quietly without harming anyone. Yet, we are told that climate change is going to impact us. If we can no longer live in our villages, we will have to move out of our homelands and we don’t know how to make a living in cities.”

Forests cut and indigenous people removed to allow for extraction

Damiao and Cosmos’ plight is shared by 511 indigenous tribes in the Amazon basin. Together, these tribes manage 240 million hectares of forests. There are about 500 million indigenous people in the world (~6% of the world’s population), 20% of whom are adivasis (tribals) in India. They manage 50% of the world’s land but own just 10% of it. Yet, they protect the world’s forests. Their lands in just three countries–Amazon Basin, Mesoamerica, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia contain more than 20% of the world’s aboveground carbon.

The lands of indigenous peoples are a repository for over 80% of earth’s biodiversity and are rich in oil, gas, timber and minerals. To access and extract these natural treasure troves, forests have to be cut and indigenous populations displaced. Governments enact discriminatory policies to allow this so that corporations can prospect, mine, log, and pollute forests, and big farmers can clearfell forests to make ranch lands. The net result is deforestation, human rights abuse, conflict, indigenous populations marginalised and cut off from their livelihoods and alienated from their culture, poverty and disease.

Adivasi pushbacks despite UN recognition of their rights

The UN General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 13 September 2007. The declaration details the rights of indigenous people in international law and policy to recognize, protect and their individual and collective rights of their culture, identity and language. It outlaws discrimination against indigenous people and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them. The International Labour Organisation also confers rights of autonomy to indigenous populations under its Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169 (1989).

Yet to push back the continuous onslaught against them, the Huni Kuins and other indigenous populations have formed an association to fight for their rights and 6,000 of them went to Brazilia in September this year to protest against the new law.

Indigenous populations all over the world share the same story. In the early 1970s, Indian adivasis of the Malhar Kolis, Warlis, Konkana and Katkari tribes, who live in forests of Thane district 100 km north of Mumbai, organized themselves under the banner Bhoomi Sena (land army), and fought to retrieve their alienated lands from big farmers and moneylenders. They won and got back their lands. But the battle continues. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train alignment passes through their lands. Kalu Ram Dodhade, the octogenarian Bhoomi Sena leader says, “What use is the bullet train to us? We are not going to travel by it. No one asked us whether we wanted it. This project will only bring further ruin to our people and to our forests.” Bhoomi Sena has been actively protesting against the bullet train.

Sonia Guajajara of the Association of Indigenous People of Brazil sums it up well by stating, “Our voices are not being heard anywhere in the world.”

Title deeds needed

Indigenous populations argue that to fulfil the rights under the UN Declaration, they require title deeds to their lands. This they say will protect forests and improve forest management, conserve biodiversity as they are custodians of cultural and ancestral knowledge that is needed to save the planet. They point out that deforestation is low where indigenous people have collective or individual land titles. Moreover, it is a cost-effective solution to help save the world against the ravages of climate change. And any changes to be made to their title deeds and rights under the UN Declaration must be by free, and prior informed consent should be obtained by the indigenous populations.

Until title deeds to indigenous lands are granted, efforts by individuals to buy small tracts of forests to save them will happen. Lucas, a Native American of the Yesah group of indigenous people in the US, and his Indian wife Chetana, live in the Blue Ridge mountains in the state of Virginia, USA, which were originally part of Yesah territory. Since a very young age, Lucas has striven to reclaim and protect their original forest lands. Through crowdfunding and fundraising for many years, they have bought back a part of the forest land. Today, they protect about 300 acres of intact forest and have inserted conditions into the title deed of the forest parcels that prevent any future owners from timbering or converting the forest to other land use categories. The couple grow their own food, and protect the forest fiercely from poaching, illegal hunting, other extractive practices, and pressures of development.

The land title deeds battle for indigenous populations is as much a human rights battle as it is to save the earth against the ravages of climate change and for human society to move towards a sustainable way of living. This battle requires the support of one and all. Jiboiana, an association that assists indigenous populations, brought Damiao and Cosmo to COP26 so that they can tell their story and seek support. Protestors outside the COP26 venue are doing the same thing in a different way.

Indigenous people all over the world feel outnumbered and outgunned by the governments and potential encroachers. They feel they will not just lose their lands, but their way of life. Is COP26 willing to listen to them? Or will it continue communicating in a language and idiom that not just they, but even I find difficult to follow.

Sagar Dhara is a climate activist


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