Mato Grosso state in west-central Brazil. CIFOR/Icaro Cooke Vieira

Leaders unite in appeal to protect Amazon as deforestation accelerates

U.N. forum on Indigenous issues concerned over policy changes in Brazil

“When invaders come from the outside, they bring hunger and death,” said Jair Seixas Reis, chief of the Maraguá people in Brazil’s state of Mato Grosso. “We don’t know what to do other than resist. It’s very dangerous. I’m asking for help. The world needs to speak out. Amazonia is the lungs of our earth and if the lungs don’t work, the world will die.”

Seixas Reis, who said his life has been threatened more than 20 times, was addressing the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York alongside representatives of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) and the Holy See, which governs the Catholic church.

“I’m asking for help from the world on behalf of all Indigenous peoples,” Seixas Reis said, referring to new policies in Brazil introduced since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January, which are widely recognized to have placed the autonomy of Indigenous peoples and control over their lands under threat.

Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture is now in charge of land claimed by Indigenous peoples, an act seen to benefit the agribusiness sector. The government also cut funding and transferred authority from the country’s federal Indigenous agency (FUNAI) and the Ministry of Environment to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Brazil lost 1.3 million hectares of primary tropical forest in 2018, the highest rate of any country in the world, according to a new report released on Thursday by Global Forest Watch, an organization managed by World Resources Institute.

Also on Thursday, non-profit group Amazon Watch released a report stating that at least 14 cases of illegal invasions have occurred in Indigenous territories in Brazil since the beginning of the year, an increase of 150 percent.

Amazonian rainforests are considered vital for the conservation of biodiversity and all life on earth.

“We must love, respect and defend the Amazon, the climate – we must protect the environment,” said Father Justino Rezende. “It’s important that we understand that all of us must take on a commitment in favor of life.”

As a Tuyuca, Rezende said he will be the only Indigenous Catholic priest participating in a special assembly for the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region in Rome in October.

In 2017, two years after Pope Francis issued a major document entitled Laudato Si’ (Praise Be) on the impact of human activities on the environment, religious leaders formed the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI).

Implemented by UN Environment and supported by the government of Norway, IRI opens the door for leaders of all religions to work with Indigenous peoples, governments, businesses and civil society to protect rainforests.

“The effort by Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region to authentically listen to, and engage with, Indigenous peoples from all nine countries of the Amazon to sustain the forest is inspiring,” said Charles McNeill, senior advisor for forests and climate at UN Environment. “Religious leaders are recognizing that we all owe Indigenous peoples and forest communities everywhere an enormous debt of gratitude for generations of leadership protecting our planet’s forests, biodiversity and climate — and they are increasingly embracing the moral and ethical responsibility to defend the rights of Indigenous peoples to their lands and territories.”

UN Environment is committed to bringing together diverse actors, including Indigenous peoples, religious leaders and governments, to identify and curtail the threats facing environmental defenders, he said, adding that some Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu leaders in southeast Asia are also acting to conserve forests.

“The most important thing is to rally the support that we need from the international community and the environmental movement to really call attention to these issues to take a stand for isolated peoples because they are the most vulnerable – they can become extinct if we don’t do something about it, if we don’t mobilize a campaign around their protection,” said Beto Marubo, a representative of Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB).

Marubo, from Brazil’s Vale do Javari, where 2,000 Indigenous people live voluntarily in isolation, is working with director Celine Cousteau on a new film, Tribes on the Edge.

“There’s a lot of mistreatment of Indigenous people. Amazonia is dying,” said Seixas Reis. “Those working for the cause of Indigenous peoples, please look at Amazonia. Look to our neighbors who are facing the same – being despised by governments who don’t respect us and don’t know how closely we’re linked to our land. ”

The 18th Session of the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Issues is at the United Nations in New York from 22 April 3 May 2019.

Learn more about this topic at the Global Landscapes Forum conference in Bonn, Germany, 22-23 June 2019.

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