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Indigenous leaders from the Cuencas Sagradas initiative carried out protests at COP26. Photo: Cuencas Sagradas.

From the Amazon to COP26: indigenous people fight big oil in Glasgow

In 2017, as oil and mining activities advanced into indigenous territory in Perú and Ecuador, local organizations joined forces against them. After years of work, their project —called Cuencas Sagradas (Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative)— now took the battle to COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.

“We are not here [at COP26] to talk about conservation like everyone else, we are here talking about our life”, says Verónica Inmunda, youth leader of the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana (Confeniae).

Like Verónica, dozens of indigenous leaders from the Ecuadorian Amazon —from nationalities like shuar, kichwa, waorani and sapara— traveled more than 10.000 km through forest, rivers, and air to get to COP26. There, they pushed to make their demands heard, they said. 

Many of them have experienced first hand the consequences of oil spills in their land, as well as deforestation due to mining and construction of extractive activities.

In the final outcomes of COP26, the Parties emphasized the “importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goal”, while ensuring “social safeguards.”

However, Ecuador and Perú’s compromise with indigenous forest guardians is still unclear after COP26 came to a closure. Perú is even moving on with infrastructure projects on indigenous land without their consent, local organizations denounced.

In Ecuador, there are 14 indigenous nationalities, 11 of which are in the Amazon region and are under a constant threat of extractive industries such as mining and oil drilling.

Now, more than 50 years after the oil boom began in the country, they can no longer inhabit their homes as their ancestors did. This has led to frequent conflict with the Ecuadorian government and multinational companies —such as Chevron— that threaten their territory. 

Pillaging forests

Extractive industries have put the Amazon on the verge of a tipping point. Nowadays, more than 90 oil blocks cover 20 million hectares of forest between Ecuador and Peru. Another million hectares are covered by mining and logging companies. 

Only in the last 30 years, more than 500 thousand hectares of tropical forest have been lost in both countries due to deforestation. Deforestation is one of the main causes of climate change, experts say, and stopping it is a key action to slow down global warming. 

The Amazon overall has lost 17% of its forests in the last 50 years, a report by the conservation organization WWF shows. If this grows to 25%, it will reach a tipping point and will no longer be the lungs of the Earth, but one of the largest CO2 emitters. 

However, extractive activities in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon not only have had negative impacts on nature and the ecosystems biodiversity, but also on people. 

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Indigenous groups from the Amazon participated in the climate march in Glasgow during COP26. Photo: Cuencas Sagaradas.

Juan Pérez, president of the Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP) says during the 50 years that extractive industries have been in Peru, indigenous communities have seen a rise on health issues, food insecurity, social conflict, and even poverty. 

Maricela Gualinga, vice president of the kichwa community of Sarayaku, claims, for example, that the “indigenous peoples who live in areas that surround oil blocks in Ecuador live in misery.”

In fact, the Amazon region of Ecuador and Peru has the worst indicators of poverty and unsatisfied basic needs —such as access to clean water and electricity— compared to the rest of the country.

Forests play an essential role in regulating the Earth’s climate. They have a direct effect on global and local rainfall patterns, and help regulate the temperature and availability of freshwater. And they also function as carbon sinks; that means that they absorb carbon from the atmosphere and help reduce the amount of CO2 in the air.

But when forests are degraded, instead of regulating the Earth’s climate, they aggravate the climate crisis, since all the carbon they used to store is released. 

Karina Barrera, Secretary for Climate Change at the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition in Ecuador, says that the world’s forests could release over “6 trillion tons of carbon” to the atmosphere if they were to be lost. 

Protecting water from oil

Cuencas Sagradas (Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative), an indigenous initiative to protect the Amazon’s basins from fossil fuels and mining companies, was one of the initiatives taking their fight against fossil fuels to COP26. 

The project is led by organizations from Peru and Ecuador, who joined forces to protect their territory in 2017. The group, however, had not launched widespread efforts until recently, after spending its first years defining an implementation plan.

Cuencas Sagradas proposes to protect 35 million hectares of the tropical forest that surrounds the most important headwaters of the Amazon River: the Napo, Pastaza and Marañón rivers. 

The two indigenous organizations who lead Cuencas Sagradas —AIDESEP and Confeniae— have been working for over a year to develop a plan with the goals needed to protect the Amazon’s watersheds. 

One of those goals, for example, is to reach agreements with the governments of Ecuador and Peru and the companies that are currently extracting natural resources from the Amazon. Belén Páez, Executive Director of Fundación Pachamama, says that this is essential to avoid conflict, respect human rights, and secure the implementation of the initiative.

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The area of ​​the Sacred Basins comprises 35 million hectares, and is the place of origin of the Amazon River, which is born from the Napo, Pastaza and Marañón rivers. Photo: Cuencas Sagradas.

Another goal is to encourage the transition from the current economic model —that is based on the extraction of fossil fuels— and leave the resources underground. 

Carolina Zambrano, Climate Justice Lead at Hivos, says that the extractivism on which the Ecuadorian economic model is based, “is not sustainable”. According to her, dependence on fossil fuels is not only destroying the forests, but also degrading them which could cause a collapse of biodiversity.

Cuencas Sagradas is also looking to legalize more than nine million hectares of indigenous territory to avoid problems of rights violations and appropriation of ancestral territories. Land rights have been some of the most echoed demands from indigenous groups around the world.

Ecuador has a long history of not respecting the constitutional right of indigenous people to a prior, free and informed consultation about projects that may harm them and their territories. Hence, it is expected that legalizing some territories will lessen this issue. 

Yet, the most important goal, says leader Veronica Inmunda, is to improve the living conditions of the indigenous population. “We, indigenous people, deserve to live a dignified life in a healthy environment,” says the young leader who is also part of a kichwa community in Pastaza. 

What’s next?

Even though the initiative is fully designed and ready, none of its goals can be achieved without support. That is why COP26 has been so important for the indigenous peoples that lead it. 

Even though some exposure was achieved, Ecuador and Peru are yet to officially support the Cuencas Sagradas initiative specifically. Perú is even building roads on indigenous land against their will, the organization denounced.

The only action made by both governments that aligns with some of the objectives of the indigenous initiative has been signing the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, which aims to conserve forests and halt deforestation to fight climate change. 

The declaration also includes the compromise of 12 donors to provide 12 billion dollars of public climate finance from 2021 to 2025 to a new Global Forest Finance Pledge. This fund will support action in developing countries, including restoring degraded land. 

Moreover, other fourteen donors compromised at least 1.7 billion dollars from 2021 to 2025 specifically to promote “indigenous peoples and local communities’ forest tenure rights” and to support their role as the guardians of the forests.

Yet, since the declaration does not specify how the funds will be distributed and who will be responsible for its tracking, observers from the civil society, conservationists, and indigenous leaders still have their doubts. 

Belén Páez said in an interview during the first week of COP, that the future of the forests and indigenous peoples are “in the leaders’ political will” to comply with the declaration. 

In an Assembly during the second week of COP26, Gregorio Mirabal, coordinator of the Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA), said that the solution to the climate crisis is to support indigenous peoples.

“We have the best preserved territories, we cannot continue killing the Amazon so that 20 countries live in development,” he added.

Doménica Montaño
Doménica is a journalist from Ecuador who loves to write stories about the environment, climate change, indigenous communities, and human rights. Her favorite story is one she wrote over a year ago about nine girls who sued the Ecuadorian state for violating their rights with the gas flaring systems that are still being used by oil companies in the Amazon. She’s very proud to say that that story was awarded an honorable mention in a human rights journalism competition.