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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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