Protecting the World’s Forests Means Protecting Indigenous Rights

Originally published at Project-Syndicate | Aug 3rd, 2023

Indigenous peoples have proven to be the best protectors of our world’s natural resources. But their lands and traditional ways of life are under attack by extractive corporations that prioritize profits over sustainability, posing a threat to biodiversity and the future of all.

TENA – For more than 500 years, indigenous peoples in Ecuador have been fighting to protect their lands, culture, and very existence from the disastrous consequences of colonization. From the moment the colonizers set foot on our land, they sought to exploit its natural resources for profit. Today, corporations from China, Canada, and Australia mine our territories for gold, disregard our objections, and defy government orders, perpetuating death and destruction.

Indigenous peoples have long served as the stewards of humanity’s collective future, living in harmony with nature and respecting its cycles and complexities. We recognize that our survival (and the survival of everyone else) is inextricably tied to the health and vitality of natural ecosystems. But the forests that we call home, which have sustained our communities over generations, are under attack. Once-pristine rivers are now contaminated with toxic chemicals, poisoning our food, lands, and communities.

As the relentless extraction of oil and minerals degrades our lands and rivers, the delicate ecosystems that serve as habitats for countless species are being pushed to the brink of collapse. But it is not just the physical destruction that we lament. The violation of our sacred lands is an affront to indigenous peoples’ spirit and resilience. Our profound bond with the Earth is the bedrock of our cultural identity. When multinational corporations indiscriminately ravage our forests, they trample on our ancestral legacy and disregard the wisdom and knowledge that have been passed down through the generations. Moreover, this devastation serves as a stark reminder that despite centuries of commodification, contemporary societies still cling to economic models that prioritize profits over the well-being of people and the environment.

As I write this, my friends, family, and I are actively challenging these companies’ harmful practices. We call them out on social media and take them to court. But our objections are often brushed aside, as indigenous peoples have been for centuries. This fuels a vicious cycle of poverty, inequality, and cultural disintegration.

Regrettably, my fight to protect the ancestral lands where my friends and family reside is merely a microcosm of the broader struggle to preserve our planet. An economic model predicated on maximizing short-term profits, with little regard for the environmental consequences, has pushed the planet to the brink of climate catastrophe and resulted in polluted rivers, decimated ecosystems, and the displacement of indigenous communities.

Ecuador, like much of Latin America, is a victim of this economic model. Despite having freed themselves from colonialism, Latin American countries still rely on exporting commodities and amassing high-interest foreign loans to boost economic development. Ecuador, for example, exports oil extracted from the Amazon to service its debts.

As long as extractive capitalism prevails, Ecuador’s indigenous communities have no choice but to oppose it. We have tried to voice our concerns through peaceful protests, petitions, and lawsuits, and yet our pleas continue to fall on deaf ears. Given this blatant disregard for indigenous peoples’ basic human rights, the international community must intervene and enforce the court orders protecting our lands.

Indigenous peoples’ ongoing struggle to conserve their lands and traditional ways of life underscores the urgent need for a radical shift in consciousness and practice. We must move beyond the narrow confines of profit-driven economies and embrace a new ethos that emphasizes the well-being of individuals, societies, and the planet.

To this end, Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley’s Bridgetown Initiative calls for far-reaching reforms to the global financial architecture. Making multilateral lenders more responsive to the climate needs of low-income countries would enable critical funds to be directed to the countries that need them most, such as Ecuador. While it may be too optimistic to believe that such reforms would end gold mining in the Amazon, these changes are essential to dismantle today’s exploitative system and put the world on the path to sustainability.

In this time of crisis, let us draw inspiration from the indomitable spirit and unwavering commitment of indigenous communities that have been fighting to protect their lands for centuries. By coming together and embracing alternative economic models, we can compel multinationals to abandon their destructive practices and reclaim a future where indigenous peoples’ rights are upheld, our forests are safe, and the well-being of all living things takes precedence over the corporate bottom line.

Juan Carlos Jintiach: Is Executive Secretary of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities.

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