Indigenous leaders call for stronger rights as UN nature summit begins

Mapuche indigenous people protest in downtown Santiago, on Oct 10, 2021.
Mapuche indigenous people protest in downtown Santiago, on Oct 10, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

BOGOTA (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - Indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest have a clear message for decision-makers ahead of two global environment conferences: respect our land and human rights to slow climate change and protect biodiversity.

"People who exploit and take out resources don't live (in the Amazon) - but we do. The forest is our home," said Ms Nemonte Nenquimo, a native leader of Ecuador's Waorani people.

"If we don't protect the forest, climate change will get worse and unknown illnesses will come," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video call from her Amazon community.

About 195 countries are expected to finalise a new pact to safeguard the planet's plants, animals and ecosystems at the two-part COP15 United Nations summit, which starts on Monday (Oct 11) with a virtual session and concludes in May 2022 in Kunming, China.

The accord will build on the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity, designed to protect the planet's rich catalogue of plant and animal species, ensure sustainable use of natural resources and enshrine the "biocultural rights" of indigenous communities.

Such rights are interpreted differently by each indigenous group but often include intellectual property, such as ancestral knowledge and practices handed down between generations.

Those range from farming methods, crops and plant-based medicine used in an area to traditional arts and crafts. Ancient plant remedies often form the basis of modern treatments.

Chile's rare native quillay trees, for instance, long used by the indigenous Mapuche people to make soap and medicine, provided key ingredients for the world's first malaria vaccine and a successful shingles vaccination.

A draft of the proposed new UN biodiversity pact includes a goal to ensure that benefits derived from the use of local genetic richness "are shared fairly and equitably" and also support conservation and sustainable use of those resources.

The draft also calls for a boost in the share of financial and other benefits the holders of traditional knowledge receive from wider use of their ideas and local species.

On Monday, more than 150 civil society and indigenous groups as well as academics, from more than 50 countries, published an open letter calling on world leaders to put human rights at the centre of environmental policy, ahead of the two UN summits.

"To be truly just and sustainable, policies on climate and nature must take into account the needs and rights of communities at the frontline of the crises," said Andrew Norton, director of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.


Defending indigenous rights is considered particularly crucial to conserving the Amazon. PHOTO: AFP

How well the intellectual property of indigenous groups is protected today varies from country to country.

A study published this year by Fundacion Nativo, a Venezuela-based indigenous rights non-profit, found five Latin American nations - Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico and Venezuela - now recognise such rights through law and the constitution.

"Denying a people their biocultural rights is denying their very existence," said Fundacion Nativo head of development Sagrario Santorum.

The research, supported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, showed most Latin American nations allow indigenous communities to hold intellectual property rights and seek compensation when their designs or medicines are copied without permission.

Cultural appropriation came under the spotlight in May when Mexico accused fashion brands, including Zara, of using patterns from the country's indigenous groups without any benefit to the communities. Zara-owner Inditex denied any wrongdoing.

"In Latin America, the legal framework to protect biocultural rights is pretty much there. However, there's a huge gap in implementation and enforcement," said Ms Patricia Quijano, an environmental lawyer in Peru. "At the end of the day, indigenous groups often don't have the power to protect and exercise those rights," she added.

Indigenous activist Ms Nenquimo, in Ecuador, agreed. "There are many laws that protect indigenous rights on paper and they sound nice, but it's just on paper," she said of Ecuador's legislation.

Better protection of biocultural rights can help indigenous people manage land and natural resources more effectively in line with "their profound and unique relation with the environment", Ms Quijano said.

That is also important because protecting and restoring carbon-absorbing native tropical forests is a powerful and inexpensive way to combat climate change, forest and indigenous experts say.

A report this year from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showed that protecting the biocultural rights of forest-dwelling and indigenous communities, along with granting them secure land tenure, reduces deforestation and promotes the sustainable management of natural resources.

"Nature has greater biodiversity where indigenous peoples are present. The land is richer where they are," said Ms Santorum. "That's no accident. It is the product of a way of life that's transmitted from generation to generation," she added.

Defending indigenous rights is considered particularly crucial to conserving the Amazon and indigenous leaders hope the issue will also garner greater attention at the COP26 UN climate change conference in Scotland next month.

In Brazil - home to the biggest share of the Amazon rainforest - deforestation is surging as a result of expanding cattle-ranching and soy farming, along with illegal logging.

Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has risen sharply since right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019.