The Amazon rainforest is a trove of biodiversity with tremendous value for the global economy. It is also home to a vast array of indigenous people who are highly valuable for the environment.
Arguably the world’s most successful implementation of indigenous rights has taken place in Colombia, and it has benefits far beyond the 23 communities that are represented. The indigenous community Ngäbe-Kaiowa signed a declaration at the National Conference of Indigenous Peoples in Mexico in 2012, in which they agreed to incorporate environmental sustainability as their long-term agenda.
The result has been comprehensive actions to protect biodiversity from the forest to the fishing industry; to create jobs for children; to preserve valuable ecosystems and natural resources; and to implement a monitoring and management system to provide day-to-day oversight of key ecosystems.
Although by some estimates the Amazon rainforest covers an area of 4,800,000 square kilometers, or more than 45,000 times the size of India, it contains just 16 percent of the biodiversity and 8 percent of its oil.
According to a 2016 report by the Colombia office of the United Nations Environment Program, the implementation of these indigenous rights has had “significant and tangible benefits in terms of the socio-economic development of indigenous communities and protection of biodiversity.”
Unfortunately, three years later, all signs indicate that this success will not continue. With environmental pressures from armed groups constantly increasing, Ngäbe-Kaiowa leaders are now in jeopardy of losing those hard-won environmental rights they have fought so hard to obtain.
According to a 2018 report by Colombia’s Institute of Environmental Protection, the Environmental Defense Council, and Greenpeace, indigenous leaders are threatened in their villages from any number of factors, including the armed conflict, unregulated agriculture, and encroachment by miners.
For communities dependent on smallholder farmers for their source of income, these harmful activities can dramatically reduce sales of their products. However, the “not enough” tax levied on an entire market can endanger the businesses that rely on the cash-cow crops the farmers grow.
As a result, indigenous communities are feeling the brunt of environmental pressures as both illegal and illicit mining (coal, gold, and illegal petroleum) eats away at their revenue.
Colombia’s indigenous communities have seen their land appropriated by illegal armed groups, and they’ve been cut off from their fishing grounds and only a fraction of their current and expected income. According to the United Nations report, many indigenous leaders are now risking their lives by standing up to the illegal mining and other mining operations that are hurting their communities.
According to the report, in the Choco department, around 600 armed groups threaten the lives of indigenous leaders and increase the risk of illegal mining being funded by extortion. The region is facing a wave of displacement, and one local leader reported that he recently was severely beaten on his way to offer his salary to his family.
These issues are part of a larger picture. Illegal logging, the armed conflict, and the mining operations are part of a process that has caused deforestation in the Amazon that has been fueled by the gold and gold-bearing forest products found in the region.
Under these conditions, the viability of the indigenous communities is at risk.
In response to these factors, the Nicaraguan indigenous community said it was suffering from acute economic insecurity. The struggle for social, political, and economic justice is a struggle for the world to resist, and for us to demonstrate to the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas that the current situation is not sustainable.
We are here in Latin America for only one purpose—to celebrate the efforts of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas to defend their rights and the future of their community. Their hard work, commitment, and perseverance have not been for nothing. Now, as you can see, they have overcome great obstacles to achieve their dreams of leading a dignified life, and as leaders they should be supported as they face a rapidly-changing world.
Chris Sabri, author of “Entre the Amazons and the Loggers,” is a photographer.