David A. Andelman, World Policy Journal’s editor emeritus, is reporting from the Paris Climate Conference. This week, he sat down with Jorge Furagaro, coordinator for environment, climate change, and biodiversity of COICA, the coordination body of indigenous organizations of the Amazon Basin, and vice president of Climate Alliance.
DAVID ANDELMAN: What do you hope to see from these countries that will change the nature of the environment in the Amazon? What do you see as something that will transform or preserve the Amazon?
JORGE FURAGARO: I think that here in COP21 we, as indigenous peoples, have to insist that there be respect of indigenous rights in the official document. Many states do not want that, but I think it is the most important thing we need.
DA: We understand the rights, but in terms of the environment itself, how do you think it is going to change as a result of this conference? What do you hope to see come out of this conference in respect to preserving the Amazon jungle?
JF: I think you can’t just speak about environment and rights as two separate issues. So if you don’t respect indigenous rights, you will have a lot of difficulties. In the territories of indigenous peoples, there are concessions for oil and mining companies, so if we don’t support the rights of the indigenous people, the environment won’t be protected and that will be very bad.
DA: Have you, in your lifetime, seen the world degrade or the ecology change as a result of the earth warming on the part of the earth where you come from?
JF: In the last 10 years, climate change has had a severe effect on us, and it still does. We have floods and then intense heat. There are also times when it gets really dry. Now, it is very hard for the women to work in the gardens the whole day. Before they used to work on the whole day in the chakra, as we call it, but now that is impossible, after 12 p.m. they are not able to work anymore. Therefore, there is also an effect on the food security of indigenous people. Before we had well-defined seasons such as summer and winter, and we knew when it was going to rain and when there would be sun. But that has totally changed. When we think it is summer time it suddenly starts to rain. It has become unpredictable.
DA: Do you think that the delegates here, especially those from developed countries, understand the scope of the problem and how quickly this is changing?
JF: Many of the delegates know about the problems, but one has to say that in the delegations there are also people who are part of companies that are taking part in activities contributing to climate change, so they know the problems but there is a lot of lobbying.
DA: So, when you talk to people like that, what do you tell them that they need to do for the Amazon and for your people? If you had some of these leaders sitting here, what would you tell them the people in the Amazon need immediately and in the longer term?
JF: What I really want to highlight are the initiatives of the indigenous people, and their contributions to mitigation. If you really want to fight for climate change, you need to legalize more indigenous territories, because the territories are very important and indigenous communities are the ones looking after them and the ones protecting the rainforest.
DA: Do you think that if you had the capability, if you were able to manage your own property, to manage the rainforest without interference, that you could do much more toward the preservation of resources like that?
JF: We, as indigenous peoples, have been protecting the forest for thousands of years. We are living in the forest in a traditional way without destroying and deforesting it, so we are looking after the resources. We learned this from our grandparents. We are fighting against deforestation and we have been managing it for thousands of years. In many constitutions in Latin America, indigenous peoples only have partial rights, so what we really need is to have these rights and to go on fighting against climate change.
DA: The rainforest, especially the Amazon, which is the greatest rainforest in the world, is basically the lungs of the world. Do you see this being damaged now? Is the destruction of the environment affecting these organs that are so important for the survival of the world?
JF: We have to clarify something. You said that the Amazon is the lungs of the world, but it is the lungs of the indigenous people. What is really impacting to the Amazon is not climate change, it is the politics and the policies from the countries that are after the resources in our territories. This is what is really destroying the Amazon, and also destroying our cultural and traditional ways. It is a civilizational problem.
DA: And the outcome affects people far beyond the Amazon, because if the Amazon itself is destroyed, that hinders the ability of other parts of the world to rejuvenate and to counteract some of the other results of climate change…
JF: We are not thinking about the destruction of the Amazon, what we think about is to protect the Amazon, protect its resources, and to protect the biodiversity and the culture there, so that is our main goal.
DA: One of the debates here is over whether we get the world to 1.5 degrees increase in temperature by the end of the century or 2.7 to 3.5. Does this matter that much to you or is it more about broader questions of how it relates to his environment?
JF: We think we are talking here about 2 degrees, and we think that is really a lot, it shouldn’t be more than 1.5 degrees. Indigenous peoples are not only living in the Amazon, they also live in the Arctic, and for them it’s even worse and the effect is even greater. There are also indigenous people on the islands and in other regions that are really affected by climate change so it’s more of a general question.
DA: Could you describe the village or the town that you are from? Where is it located, and how far into the Amazon is it?
JF: I’m from a little town called Chorrera, which is in the region of the Amazon in Colombia. I belong to the community of Huitoto people. We were threatened by the rubber boom and were massacred. There is no direct transportation. There is just one direct flight from the capital city to our town and it’s a small plane that can only carry up to eight people at a time. This plane comes in once a week only. There is a river, but it is not possible to reach the village this way. There are no streets. It’s like a little island.
DA: How do you get there?
JF: In an airplane, and we have to ask for it three months in advance, more or less. And that is also a problem–what we need is a flight for the people who are ill in the village to be able to go to the city to get proper treatment.
This interview was translated by Silke Lunnebach, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
[Photo courtesy of David Andelman]