If indigenous people are key to combating climate change, why doesn’t Colombia listen to them?

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This text is part of an alliance between El Espectador (national newspaper) and the organization Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad. Although the country recognizes the importance of reserves in forest conservation, as stipulated in its climate commitments; Communities claim the government does not involve them in creating policies related to these issues. Reports indicate that only 11% of the resources destined for the Amazon reach these towns. “Cultivating chagras(crops) is an increasingly difficult challenge.” The words are from José Wilter Rodríguez, an indigenous Piapoco, from the department of Guainía, who recalls how the ecological calendars of indigenous communities have been affected by climate change. He comments: “If before, between October and March it was sowing time, now it suddenly rains. In summer the rivers are flooded and the force with which the water arrives is so great that even entire communities that lived on the banks have disappeared due to the intensification of the climate”.

A similar scenario describes Giorgina Bautista, a Puinave indigenous from the same department; “The rises in temperature have directly affected our grandparents and elders at work in the fields, at least in the Amazon and Orinoquia territory.” Likewise, she relates that “At 9:10 in the morning the heat makes it impossible to continue cultivating and, when there is rain, the journey to the chagras becomes more arduous.” He also describes, “It is something very symbolic, because there, in the crops, we have food security for our peoples,” says Bautista.

Not only are there many direct impacts that climate change has on the earth, but also most of these consequences are experienced with great intensity by indigenous Colombians. They speak of: massive displacement, loss of biodiversity, droughts and that their sacred sites are at risk of disappearing. The paradox is that, while their testimonies are a sign that they are being seriously affected by this phenomenon, the government does not include their answers or knowledge to combat climate change.

At the end of March this year, during a press conference, Julio Berdegué, regional representative of FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), gave some statements that summarize the matter quite well. “Indigenous and tribal peoples and the forests in their territories play a vital role in global and regional climate action, as well as, in the fight against poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Their territories contain around a third of all the carbon stored in the forests of Latin America and the Caribbean and 14% of the carbon stored in the tropical forests of the world”.

It was not the first time that this evidence has come to light. Earlier last year, a study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment and conducted by the University of Maryland tracked what percentage of the world’s forests were well preserved. Thus it identified that 36% of these ecosystems, which are still intact, are precisely part of indigenous territories. It is therefore that the presence of these communities in their territories is key to retaining a large part of the emissions within the forests.

To bring it to a more local scale, one can also talk about the report prepared in 2019 by the Socio-environmental Information Network (RAISG). From a study that used NASA Landsat satellite images to investigate the forests of the Amazon basin that comprises several countries, the researchers found that while in indigenous territories (which comprise 52% of the forests) there were only 17 % deforestation rate, the remaining 83% concentrated on vacant land and private lands. To contextualize the idea, in Colombia 58.5% of the territory is forest and, of this, 48.3% is in indigenous territory (according to DANE).

There are maybe hundreds of Studies like the previous ones. In fact, in 2020, an article published in the Journal of Applied Ecology by Rutgers University in New Jersey (The United States), went even further. It found that the indicators indigenous communities use to monitor ecosystems are extremely useful tools for understanding the impacts of climate change. As María Alejandra Aguilar, researcher and coordinator of the Climate Justice area of ​​ la Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad, says, “even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) affirms that indigenous communities and their traditional knowledge are essential to promote mitigation measures and adaptation to climate change”.

The indigenous Colombians are not oblivious to this evidence, nor to the fundamental role they play in leading the fight against climate change. It is something natural, that is in them and that they have done for centuries. “The territories that they call uncultivated, but which for us are ancestral, we feel that the Government has not done a good job to safeguard them. Instead, he has finished them off with deforestation, extensive cattle ranching and allowing certain actors to harm them, ”says Rodríguez. “One is going to make a comparison and realize that, on the other hand, the indigenous reservations are very healthy, well preserved, and that is why it has been said that indigenous peoples are the best conserving the world,” he assured.

But if the experts know it, science reassures  it and international organizations constantly reiterate it, among these communities the perception is that the evidence has been rather ignored by the Colombian government. Cervantes Gómez Arcángel, a Cubeo indigenous from Vaupés region, sees it as follows: “We are calling for the government’s guidelines on climate change to be articulated with us. That recognition be made to the peoples who have traditionally cared for our territories and that we are recognized at the institutional level”.

In December of last year, Duque’s administration, through the Ministry of the Environment, updated its climate commitments. In other words, it published what its roadmap will be between now and 2030 to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change (All under the umbrella of the Paris Agreement). But despite the fact that this commitment, as pointed out by Aguilar from Ambiente y Sociedad: “has a differential ethnic approach and with vulnerable communities, in which it is recognized that a large part of the natural forests are managed by ethnic and local communities, and the importance of indigenous reservations in the protection of forests”. The indigenous, on their part, feel that, until now, this is a statement that has just remained on paper.

Altogether Rodríguez, Bautista and Arcángel (all three from different towns) agree on the same thing. Indigenous communities are not taken into account in the construction of policies related to climate change. CONPES (National Council for Economic and Social Policy), decrees, laws and circulars are published, related to the Colombian Amazon (where 52 indigenous peoples live according to the Organization of the Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon) but they are never consulted.

And it is not because in Colombia there are no spaces for participation. According to Aguilar, to discuss climate change policies there are the nine regional climate change nodes, where there are representatives of the ethnic groups, as well as autonomous spaces for participation, such as the MIAACC (Indigenous Amazonian Environmental and Climate Change Board). But, as she herself points out, “although the Government has taken steps to recognize the role of indigenous people in the fight against climate change, it still falls short in the measurements of many goals, including reducing deforestation, where indigenous worldviews are not directly included”.

Mateo Estrada, advisor on environmental issues and climate change to the general coordination of OPIAC, believes that this problem is compounded by resources. Since, the latter, above all those of international cooperation, which, they feel, is more aligned with the protection of the Amazon, never reach the communities. “There are 24 million hectares of protected land, and almost all of it is about strategic ecosystems,” he says. “But there are no spaces where we have participation from the beginning and where resources can be appropriated.” His words go beyond an opinion. In fact, in 2018 the report entitled “Cornered by protected areas” and co-written by the NGO Rights and Resources Initiative, indicated that of the US $ 1,070million that came from 43 entities to protect the Amazon between 2013 and 2015, only 11% was invested in indigenous communities and 6% in promoting initiatives to improve the lives of local people. That explains, in a way, why programs to stop deforestation are not very successful.

The evidence is clear. What the indigenous people of the Colombian Amazon want and think is also true. The dialogue spaces are created. But as the communities themselves say, what seems to lack is the will of the government to understand that indigenous peoples are one of the key pieces to meet the ambitious goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 51% by 2030. Still, some believe, there is room for hope. In February of this year, the draft decree that will create the National Indigenous Environmental Commission was published, a space where different indigenous organizations will sit down to talk with the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of the Interior, the IDEAM (Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies) and National Natural Parks, about this problem.