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By: All Eyes on the Amazon team based on the virtual conference Defending the Amazon: For Nature, For Us

The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world, and comprises the most biodiverse tract of tropical rainforest on Earth, with one in ten known species of the world living in it, including an estimated 16,000 tree species (Field Museum, 2013); this means the largest collection of living plants and animal species on Earth.

While the Amazon is a true treasure of biodiversity and a major storage of CO2; threats of deforestation, degradation and human rights violations increase yearly, driven by illegal logging, illegal mining, fossil fuel extraction, large-scale hydroelectric dams, highways as well as palm oil and soy plantations, and cattle farming, heavily linked to the dynamics and demands of the global markets and northern consumption. 

In 2019, 135 human rights and environmental defenders were killed in Latin America - the highest rate in the world, and at the same time, 40% of environmental conflicts in the world affect Indigenous territories. Facing these threats on the frontlines are the Indigenous peoples and local communities of the Amazon, that have been defending their forests and their territories against intruders interested in its natural resources for centuries now.

In the context of the World Environment Day 2020, the All Eyes on the Amazon (AEA) Program promoted the virtual conference Defending the Amazon: For Nature, For Us, organized by Hivos in collaboration with the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) and the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), Greenpeace Brasil and Witness. The conference was composed by 3 spaces of enlightening conversations with recognized Indigenous leaders such as Gregorio Mirabal (COICA) and Sonia Guajajara (APIB), on the struggles, initiatives and calls-to-action of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin and Brazil, respectively; and a profound discussion on global markets and consumption trends, with Michael McGarrell (COICA-APA), Carolina Zambrano (Hivos) and Oliver Salge (Greenpeace Brasil). 

Impacts of extractive industries in the Amazon 

The increasing pressure due to global consumption patterns has led the Amazon to be the next frontier for commodities, directly impacting on the Amazon biome as well as local and Indigenous peoples that live in the region. It is no news that the deforestation and violation of rights in the Amazon is linked to illegal harvesting, agribusiness, oil and gas exploration, mining and infrastructure projects. Building even small oil platforms include the construction of roads in the middle of the Amazon - several studies point out to the impacts that new access roads have on the forest, related to colonization, illegal timber extraction and the associated degradation of the forest.

Moreover, while heavy machinery for mining enterprises destroy the land, which becomes unable to support reforestation; mineral waste from legal and illegal mining lead to a high concentration of toxic metals in the water and in the soil, affecting the health of Amazonian people, and sometimes even people in surrounding biomes. Altogether, the lack of native vegetation and improper water for consumption also affect food security and sovereignty.

Furthermore, a few decades ago, there was practically no soy plantation or cattle in the Amazon. Nowadays, the Brazilian Amazon has about 5 million hectares of soy plantation, being the greatest commodity exported by the country, besides the presence of 30 million cattle farming. Despite some efforts to close their custody of chain, multinational agribusiness companies operating in Brazil are unaccountable of about 50% of their indirect meat suppliers.

People fail to understand how their lives impact nature, and by impacting nature, how their lives ultimately impact climate change. Climate change is already having a direct impact on Indigenous communities. We are feeling it on the ground. Yes, we see climate science reports, but we are feeling it directly too. Because we are there, we are part of nature, we coexist with nature and, because of that, we feel the direct impacts.

Michael McGarrell

These have been a business-as-usual situation for quite some time. Unfortunately now in the face of COVID-19, deforestation associated to illegal activities has increased during the social distancing scenario, as governments have shifted their attention to the pandemic, affecting the environmental surveillance work carried out by state agencies. The advance of these activities results in more violations of Indigenous rights, besides presenting a considerable risk of COVID-19 infection to  Indigenous peoples.

Conversation with Gregorio Mirabal, Coordinator of COICA [IN SPANISH]

COVID-19: Another powerful threat

The arrival of COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the vulnerabilities of  Indigenous peoples in the rights violation and environmental degradation scenario. By June 9, 6,996 Indigenous people were infected with the disease and 629 have died in the countries of the Amazon Basin, where about 33 million Indigenous peoples live.

The high rates of COVID-19 infection and deaths represent a real risk of genocide that is not being addressed by governments, as they are failing to implement the required intercultural policies to deal with the structural sanitary crisis historically faced by  Indigenous peoples in the region with regards to other infectious diseases as malaria, dengue and measles (for more on this, see here). On the other hand, this global health, economic and humanitarian emergency also poses an opportunity to rethink about development models for COVID-19 aftermath, seeking for a sustainable and resilient economic model driven not only by nature-based, but also by rights-based solutions.

Actions taken by Indigenous Peoples and Movements in the Amazon

As a response to COVID-19 health emergency, the Indigenous movements from the Amazon Basin have recommended self-isolation for the protection of  Indigenous peoples against COVID-19, with the closure of Indigenous communities to outsiders and implementation of protocols in native languages. However, these initiatives are not enough to overcome this challenge, as the solution requires the involvement of all actors from government, the Indigenous movement, civil society and private sector.

To protect their territories,  Indigenous peoples combine their ancestral knowledge with technologies such as GPS, smartphones, drones, satellite imagery data and remote sensing for land monitoring, mapping and management, and to document deforestation, environmental degradation and human rights violations. The Indigenous data collected by those means are applied as evidence in strategic litigations, and in the promotion of advocacy and campaigns to raise awareness about deforestation, violence and illegal activities taking place within Indigenous lands.

With regards to COVID-19, Gregorio Mirabal, General Coordinator at COICA, highlighted the international advocacy actions led by COICA towards the United Nations, World Health Organization and European governments that are sensitive to the Indigenous rights agenda, such as Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, for the provision of international humanitarian aid related to allocation of healthcare professionals and equipment, and prevention materials.

On its turn, in 2019, APIB launched the international campaign "Indigenous Blood: Not a Single Drop More". As part of the campaign, a delegation of Indigenous leaders, women in majority, visited nine European countries to demand actions from companies, governments and the European Union. Sonia Guajajara, General Coordinator of APIB, reported that in addition to visibility and declarations of commitment, such campaign has had collateral positive results.

For instance, she mentioned that the connections made are now supporters of the Indigenous movement in Brazil, addressing how COVID-19 is reaching  Indigenous peoples and complementing other advocacy and assistance initiatives led by APIB to support indigenous communities with regards to COVID-19. Addiotionally, she shared the importance of involving famous people in awareness raising campaigns, to grasp the attention to what's taking place in the Amazon from people who normally would not engage in that agenda.

Besides fundraising campaigns and provision of healthcare equipment, food and hygiene supply, APIB has created the National Committee for Indigenous Life and Memory, which monitors COVID-19 infection and death cases among  Indigenous peoples. Such initiatives are even more fundamental in the environmental dismantling promoted by Bolsonaro's administration. In a recently leaked video recording of a ministerial meeting, Brazilian Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, suggested to foster further environmental deregulation while the press is focused on COVID-19. As aforementioned, the lack of environmental surveillance and law enforcement result in further deforestation which, in turn, leads to more violations of  Indigenous peoples rights.

Both Gregorio Mirabal and Sonia Guajajara stressed the importance of working in close collaboration with external non-Indigenous organizations and allies in advocacy and campaigning strategies, for instance, for amplifying the demands from the Indigenous movement, reaching other audiences worldwide.

Conversation with Sônia Guajajara - APIB [IN PORTUGUESE]

What needs to be done to stop rights violation and environmental degradation in the Amazon?

Kelly Matheson, Senior Attorney and Program Manager at Witness, facilitated the panel Global Markets, Local Consequences, where she recalled that forests are fundamental not only for  Indigenous peoples, but for all humankind. The Amazon rainforest is one of the largest carbon sinks in the world, and climate change is a massive problem faced by all inhabitants of the Earth - similar to COVID-19 in the perspective of being a global problem. Kelly invited the panelists to comment how the global community needs to take action and to support solutions for deforestation and rights violations.

Michael McGarrell, Human Rights Coordinator at COICA, points out some key actions to address deforestation and violation of rights in the Amazon. Firstly, it is fundamental to promote titling and demarcation of Indigenous lands, not only as a recognition of an established right, but also considering that Indigenous lands present lower deforestation rates than protected areas. 

The Indigenous right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) on any issue that impacts their livelihood must also be enforced. In addition, people must recognize and respect the Indigenous ancestral knowledge, which has been at the core of the sustainable management of Indigenous lands for generations.

Michael also remarked on the need to have direct funding for  Indigenous peoples, as the resources of some financing programs towards  Indigenous peoples do not reach the people living on the ground. Finally, he requested governments to stop criminalizing Indigenous leaders that fight for the defense of their peoples, lands and environment.

While Carolina Zambrano, All Eyes on the Amazon Program Director at Hivos, recalled on the need for public policies to address gender inequality that also exists in Indigenous populations, as women are more impacted by climate change due to their specific relationship with nature and also because of the role they play in their families and communities. Carolina also marked on the important role played by Indigenous monitors who collect evidence about illegal activities in their territories by combining their ancestral knowledge with cutting edge technologies.

For instance, evidence collected by Indigenous monitors was essential for the strategic litigation carried out by the Sinangoe Indigenous community, with support from Ceibo Alliance Foundation, against the Ecuadorian government, which successfully resulted in the cease of several mining concessions in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Additionally, cutting edge technologies have proven their worth in community forest management, deforestation monitoring and land mapping led by Indigenous monitors in coordination with the state, as the case of ECA-Amarakaeri in the Peruvian Amazon.

Oliver Salge, All Eyes on the Amazon Program Leader at Greenpeace, shared practical cases about how the global market directly impacts local communities from the Amazon, promoting deforestation and rights violations that have the high potential of resulting in the extinction of those  Indigenous peoples, as the case of the Ituna-Itatá IP, who live in the Brazilian state of Pará. 

An overflight done by Greenpeace in September 2019, identified fences, cattle, cabines, machines in the Ituna-Itatá Indigenous lands, clear indicators of meat production taking place in their lands. Greenpeace was able to trace the meat production to some farmers who claimed the Ituna-Itatá land to be theirs, when in fact the lands were illegally grabbed from the Indigenous peoples. As an example, one of the farmers identified by Greenpeace currently sells its meat production to another farm that provides meat to Marfrig and JBS - two of the biggest global meet producers, which, in turn, supply meat to the international market, primarily to the Asian and European markets.

In that sense, Oliver called the international community to put more focus on people living in the tropical regions and to acknowledge that they are doing the fight for all of us, so it is our duty to stand in solidarity with them.

Panel with COICA-APA, Hivos, Greenpeace and Witness [IN ENGLISH]

Call to Action: what can we do?

  • Amplify Indigenous Voices:  Indigenous peoples are the most appropriate ones to speak about what's taking place in their territories. Through technologies, people from anywhere in the world can take the opportunity to listen to stories from Indigenous peoples and Indigenous youth voices, to connect with the realities of people living in the Amazon.
  • Get Involved into Politics: Votes have huge influence on climate change and can help saving the Amazon rainforest. This means not only voting for candidates with a solid environmental agenda, but also paying attention to candidates' foreign and trade policies.
  • Reconnect with Nature: Take some time away from your city life and go out to the fields to have more experiences with nature. The more people are connected with nature, the more they become environmentally conscious and realize what needs to be done to protect the environment and to live in peace with nature.
  • Conscious Consumption: Consumers must start asking the story behind the products they buy, and how they may be linked to deforestation and human rights violation. For instance, the Ipê tree, known in the international market as Brazilian walnut tree, is very rare and there is no certificate to ensure its sustainable production, so people should not buy it. Besides, consumers that care about the forest conservation should rethink their meat, milk and eggs consumption.
  • Social Pressure: Besides changing individual behaviours, citizens can organize themselves and make their voices louder to raise awareness about the challenges faced in the Amazon and to demand the commitment from companies and governments towards structural changes.
  • Support Indigenous Communities: support initiatives of Indigenous movements as the Amazon Emergency Fund - a regional action aimed at supporting rapid response grants for prevention and care against COVID-19; food and medical supplies; emergency communications and evacuation; protection for Forest Guardians; and food sovereignty and community resilience. The Fund is coordinated by COICA and the Rainforest Foundation US, in coordination with several civil society organizations, including Hivos and the All Eyes on the Amazon program.


  • Report of the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous peoples of the Panamazon region: A weekly report on data about COVID-19 among Indigenous peoples, developed in collaboration among COICA and Panamazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM).
  • COICA's Virtual Education Platform: This is an initiative recently launched, with it´s first course edition on community communications “Tambor de la Selva”: directed to 100 Indigenous youngsters.
  • APIB's National Committee for Indigenous Life and Memory: monitors COVID-19 infection and death cases among Brazilian indigenous communities.
  • Escazú Agreement: The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazú Agreement) is the most important and recent legal milestone for the protection of defenders in the region. Up to date, the Agreement has been ratified by 9 countries, while it requires 11 ratifications in order to be in force.

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