Key to saving Amazon is protecting Indigenous rights, environmentalists say

BRASILIA – Protecting the indigenous people of the Amazon and their right to their ancestral land is critical to saving the rainforest as they are its best guardians, environmental activists said Monday.

But their rights to protected land are being undermined by the far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro, they said at a panel discussion at theReuters Impact Conference about the fate of the Amazon rainforest.

“What we are seeing is an attack on indigenous peoples, their rights, their lives and their territories,” said Leila Salazar-Lopez, managing director of Amazon Watch.

Ginger Cassady, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, said actions by the Bolsonaro government had further increased deforestation by reducing environmental protection despite their promises.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has increased sharply since Bolsonaro took office in 2019. Although preliminary data suggests that deforestation this year has changed little from last year, destruction remains at levels not seen in Brazil since 2008.

Smoke from burning vegetation rises in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest in the state of Amazonas, Brazil, September 8, 2021.Bruno Kelly / Reuters

After years of funding cuts and hiring freezes, Bolsonaro promised in a speech to the UN General Assembly in September that he would double resources for environmental protection to combat illegal deforestation.

Both activists urged banks and other investors to respect indigenous peoples’ land rights and the prior consent of local communities to projects that affect their land.

They called on the private sector to stop the expansion of oil concessions in the Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world and an important bulwark against climate change.

Salazar-Lopez said forests have been deliberately cut down to clear land for cattle pastures and soybean plantations, while gutting by the government’s indigenous affairs agency has left Funai among Bolsonaro indigenous reserves exposed and vulnerable to illegal logging and gold digging.

“Indigenous peoples are the best protectors of the Amazon forest and biodiversity on our planet … because they have an intrinsic spiritual and cultural connection to the land,” said Salazar-Lopez.

“They have the most to lose and they will do everything possible to protect the country that is everything to them,” she said.

Indigenous areas, which make up around 30 percent of the Amazon, are among the best protected areas in the region; another 20 percent are protected areas under the care of the federal government.

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