EL PAIS

Indigenous Peoples, First Victims Of Climate Change

Five stories around the world of indigenous populations suffering from global warming. The good news is they can provide solutions — if governments will listen.

A shaman in the Amazon forest
A shaman in the Amazon forest
Elisa Delobelle

They may be both the least responsible for and most vulnerable to climate change and its consequences: indigenous peoples are facing immediate risks as global warming hits home around the world. Being nearby to nature and local natural resources in their daily lives and traditions, indigenous populations are exposed to the effects of climate change.

In an open letter published last month in Le Monde to coincide with the 100th day of Jair Bolsonaro's presidency in Brazil, 15 indigenous leaders wrote that Brazilian indigenous tribes are living the first signs of "an apocalypse" as man-made climate change and the drastic exploitation of natural resources risks destroying their environment.

With these populations highly dependent on nature and traditional farming, climate change is already changing their traditions and way of life, and even threatening their very existence. Yet in some cases, governments have understood that indigenous populations can play a key role in slowing down climate change, precisely because of their cultural and ancestral knowledge. Here are five stories around the world:

Sweden

The Sami people spans the Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, with a population between 80,000 and 100,000 individuals. They have their own language, culture, flag, parliament, and politics. Their economy and way of life mostly rely on reindeer husbandry, which has recently been disturbed by climate change.

Carl-Johan Utsi, a Sami reindeer herder, told Yle that because of the unusually warm weather and a wave of wildfires over the summer of 2018, pastures and forests were destroyed, along with the main source of food for reindeers. After that, Samis feared that their herds might starve during the winter, and they were right. This winter, record-cold temperatures froze the ground, making it even harder to feed reindeers. Aggressive forestry, tourism, and the mining industry exploit the same lands and regions as the Samis, so when these different sectors compete for land, the Samis often draw the shortest straw.

The Swedish Sami Association called for the government to act to counter the effects of global warming, and provide Sami reindeer herders with economic support. Niila Inga, chairman of the association, told The Local: "It's a question of survival for the reindeer and for the whole Sami culture."

As the mining and agricultural industries take over more and more territory, indigenous people are forced out of their ancestral homes.

Indigenous peoples are facing immediate risks as global warming hits home around the world. Photo: Bob Blob

Brazil

Last year, a UN report dubbed Brazil the world's most dangerous country for indigenous populations. And it's not going to get better anytime soon. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's newly elected president, has never hidden his hostility towards indigenous tribes — nor towards climate change advocates.

One of Bolsonaro's first attacks on indigenous rights was when he transferred the National Indian Foundation (Funai), which protects indigenous territories, to the ministry of agriculture, which regularly defends the agricultural industry. This is bound to strip indigenous land and its inhabitants of any kind of protection against highly polluting industries. As the mining and agricultural industries take over more and more territory, indigenous people are forced out of their ancestral homes. This is a particularly important problem in the Amazon, which is already suffering from rapid deforestation.

Speaking to the El Pais daily, Fiona Watson, director of research at Survival International, said these tribes are also the targets of illegal, and often very violent gold miners and loggers. This "silent genocide" is far from being the priority for the current government, as Bolsonaro has said many times that these tribes are obstacles for economic progress.

New Zealand

Māoris in New Zealand are affected by another side-effect of climate change: rising sea levels. A 2017 report by the government concluded that Māoris were the most vulnerable to climate change, mainly because they live in poverty-stricken, low-lying coastal areas that are particularly exposed to storms, floods, and rising sea levels. Mike Smith, a Kiwi environmental activist, told Stuff that the Māori are already struggling to survive because their economy, like many other indigenous populations, is based on climate-sensitive activities such as fishing, agriculture, and farming.

Māori culture is also at risk. In January 2018, a Māori burial ground in the Bay of Plenty collapsed. The human remains ended up in the sea. Some dated back to the 1300s. It is not an isolated incident, as many other Māori cemeteries, which are also called ​urupā, have met the same fate, which can be very traumatic for the Māori community.

As crops take up more space, herders struggle to graze their animals and have to do it illegally.

There is a silver lining to all of this. "Mātauranga," which is the body of knowledge that the Māori have accumulated over the centuries about New Zealand's ecosystem, could be a key to responding to climate change. Since Māori communities often inhabit the same region for hundreds of years, they are more apt to notice how climate change affects local plants and animals. New Zealand scientists have started working closely with the Māori in order to develop local solutions after several studies suggested that the best path to protecting nature is to expand and preserve the land rights of indigenous populations.

Kenya

The Maasai, a nomadic tribe that lives in the Kojiado district in Kenya, had to quickly adapt to climate change in the region. They have a tradition of raising large cattle herds, but repetitive droughts and extreme weather make it almost impossible to survive without doing something else on the side. Many converted to growing crops just to be able to send their children to school. However, these activities actually make the situation worse for Maasai pastoralists.

The Star reports that proliferating human activity near the Serengeti National Park has severely damaged the local wildlife, in part because of agriculture. As crops take up more space, herders struggle to graze their animals and have to do it illegally, even if it means going into protected areas. This creates fierce competition and conflicts, as some herders have even resorted to stealing animals.

Despite cattle herding being an integral part of their culture, some Maasai decided to switch to dairy production, which requires fewer cattle and is far more lucrative. Others chose to swap to goats, as they are less affected by droughts and less attractive to thieves.

Canada

The First Nation communities of Canada are facing the effects of climate change as well. In British Columbia, Jarett Quock, from the Tahtlan Nation, is a guardian, meaning he is in charge of monitoring the effects of climate change in his area and protect sensitive wildlife. He told The Globe and Mail: "We sustain ourselves off the land, so if there are issues such as declining populations of caribou, moose and what have you, we're certainly the first to know and also be affected by issues of climate change."

Indigenous peoples' culture could be the key to reversing climate change — Photo: Richard Lakin/Xinhua/ZUMA

Last March, the national First Nation guardian gathering raised the alarm about the rapid degradation of their environment. Last summer marked the worst wildfire season ever recorded, caused by a mountain pine beetle outbreak that left forests strewn with dead wood, coupled with a particularly hot and dry summer. These fires also destroyed 21 homes.

These indigenous stewardship programs, which now include more than 40 communities around the country, are funded by the Canadian government. In 2017, they were granted $25 million for a period of five years. For these communities, is it not only a way to gain more autonomy over their land and culture, but it also provides them with much-needed jobs. Helping the planet by helping humans, and vice-versa.

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Society

Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.


Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."

*Pseudonym


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