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Indigenous People, Forgotten Soldiers In Climate Change War

A key message at this week's COP 23 climate conference: the fight against global warming requires protecting the natives who've known the rainforests for centuries.

Indigenous leaders protesting in London
Indigenous leaders protesting in London
María Paula Rubiano

BONN — Though pivotal to safeguarding ecosystems, native peoples receive just two percent of all global funding spent on curbing climate change. Their representatives at the Bonn COP 23 summit this week demanded both a bigger share of the budget and more of a voice in the debate.

One of them was Carol Jagio González, a member of the Cubeo nation. On October 12, she set out from Vaupés in southeastern Colombia on a two-day journey to Frankfurt, where a bus was waiting to take her and 19 other indigenous envoys from around the world on a month-long tour of Europe. Their aim was to make their message heard by those charged with protecting the world's forests, with a new united project: If Not Us, Then Who?

Indigenous delegations have taken part in past COP global environmental summits, but González told El Espectador that the goal for this year's summit was to "meet with those really negotiating" to increase the pressure in favor of indigenous communities. "It isn't right to seek solutions to climate change without thinking of how to protect the forests' real protectors, who are the natives," she said.

Deborah Lawrence, a lecturer at the University of Virginia in the United States, has devoted a lifetime to studying forests. She insists there is no fighting climate change without safeguarding forests, as they absorb 30% of the CO2 humans emit every year. Lawrence's studies have shown that the mere presence of forests brings down temperatures by two percent on the equator, and regulates rainfall in adjacent zones.

Protecting forests was a key strategy in the Paris Agreement to mitigate global warming. In Colombia, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has already stepped up safeguards around the Chiribiquete national park, and managed to obtain $100 million's worth of financing from Norway, Germany and the United Kingdom to stop deforestation in the country's Amazonian departments.

We're accused of being criminals.

And yet, in keeping with a report issued this year by the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), since 2010, advanced economies and multilateral actors have spent just $3.6 billion on reducing deforestation in the tropics, which is two percent of all money spent on curbing climate change. In contrast, the farming sector responsible for 70% of deforestation, has in the same period received almost 195 times that sum in subsidies.

It means in blunt terms, that while governments in tropical regions congratulate themselves on their efforts to end deforestation, in the last seven years they have paid out $777 billion for farming projects, which the NYDF states could undermine the sustainability of rainforest.

The 20 "guardians of the rainforests' who arrived by bus at COP are committing their energy (and in some cases, facing personal risk) in their opposition to big farming and livestock interests. González recounted the story of a colleague from Brazil who will not be able to return to her Amazonian home with her family after the summit. They have received death threats for opposing a project to expand soy plots.

"This is a worldwide problem," she says. "We're accused of being criminals when we won't let them cut trees, and yet they don't realize that this is precisely our contribution." She says governments argue that such disputed territories do not belong to the natives, though she see the absence of land titles as nothing but a historical shortcoming in recognizing the territorial rights of indigenous peoples.

Charlotte Streck, head of the Dutch consulting firm Climate Focus, says fighting climate change must include signing over more lands to natives, as they are the people who best know how to manage forests. In the case of the Colombian government's Visión Amazonia plan, the native chapter of the plan will receive 22% of all allocated monies, when half Colombia's Amazonian regions, about 24 million hectares, are in the hands of natives.

That project's director Josê Yunis says it is not about numbers. "We have to stop deforestation wherever it is advancing," he says.

Yunis cites as examples some of the reserves already being threatened by livestock farmers. The loss of native territories across the Amazon, it is believed, would release almost 80 gigatons (80 billion tons) of CO2, or double the global carbon emissions of 2015.

"Donor countries are worried about trees," says Carol González. "But they forget that if the trees are still standing, it is because of people who have learned how to live on the land for centuries without destroying them. They fail to understand that keeping the forests alive requires keeping alive those who known how to defend them."

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