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Guardians of the Forest: Natives and ecological preservation

A friend of mine, Sasa, volunteered at the UN climate change conference COP23.  While she was there, she emailed me about a group, Guardians of the Forest, who visited COP23 to be heard.  

Guardians of the Forest went on a bus tour, reaching at the end Bonn, the host of COP23.  Along the way, Guardians of the Forest organized events in Cologne, Brussels, Paris, London, Amsterdam and Berlin.  The goal of the tour was to raise awareness of the plight of native peoples and their unique position in preserving natural environments.  

Guardians of the Forest is a group of indigenous people from all over the world, dedicated to conserving the environments they live in, the very source of their lives and unique cultures.  Sasa and I met in Madagascar, where we worked with local people on reforestation efforts; involving indigenous people in saving rainforests seems essential to both of us.  It goes beyond just rain forests in exotic locations though, it’s something that applies to landscapes, environments and species in the US.  It is important not to fall into the trap of thinking of native people as ‘noble savages’ who always look out for the environment.  The picture is complex but native cultures can show us different perspectives on the environment, something we desperately need.  In our western, science saturated society, animals, plants, even mountains are often seen as objects or ‘resources’, something to be used.  It’s of incredible importance to talk to people who see these things as a part of home.  Would the apple tree under which you shared your first kiss or buried your dog be a resource?

Mina Setra, a Guardian of the Forest of Indonesia, says it eloquently, “We (indigenous people) look after our forest; it is our life, our home and home of our ancestors. We are the best Guardians of the forest.”

According to the Guardians of the Forest website, 40% of murdered environmental defenders in 2016 were indigenous peoples.  At the same time, indigenous peoples make up only 5% of the world’s population.  Some of these were people fighting not only for the environment but demanding basic rights and respect from large corporations like oil companies and their own governments.  The brutality and ambivalence faced by indigenous environmentalists worldwide is also mirrored in how native peoples in the US are treated.  The Standing Rock Sioux were virtually ignored by the government in their demand that no pipeline be put through their land, endangering their water supply.  Police descended on the Standing Rock protestors with concussion grenades, tear gas and violence.  

We also see how governments ignore these marginalized people in reference to Bear’s Ears National Monument.  The monument was declared because of a request from an alliance of several Native American governments.  Bear’s Ears was set to be the first national monument co-managed by Native American groups.  When Donald Trump shrank the monument by 85% he ignored this Indigenous input.  Ryan Zinke, Trump’s secretary of the interior didn’t even meet with Native American leaders before suggesting the reduction of the National Monument.

Native groups are incredibly important to the environment the world over.  Some national parks in Africa initially forced local indigenous people out, only to the detriment of the environment.  Some ecological interactions involve humans; even you and I.  Traditional people are usually more keenly aware of being part of a bigger ecosystem.  Traditional knowledge, local specific knowledge of an environment is key to finding our way back to a natural balance within the environment.

In Brazil, large tracts of rainforest have been left alone for the time being, with traffic into them severely limited.  These forests are preserved not for the environment itself but to give the native peoples living uncontacted within the right to maintain their traditional lifestyle.  Working for these native people’s rights also has the added benefit of course of preserving pristine Amazonian forest.

The Guardians of the Forest make the problems indigenous people face very clear as well as the cause of it.  Olo Villalaz from Gunayala tribe in Panama, also a member of AMBP an alliance of native peoples and forests said,

“People were very interested for our bus tour, we brought a message about situation in the rainforest, and how we all have to unite  to save the world and how they can help. People in Europe usually do not know that soya come from bloody place for us, indigenous people. However, when people in Europe became aware of that, they want to start using sustainable products. The other threat for indigenous people is a mining expansion; especially it is a problem in Colombia. In Hamburg and other ports in Europe, it is possible to see mountains of charcoal that was brought from these mines.

Even that developed countries are looking for sustainable production and renewable energy, they still rely on the coal for the energy production, and many people in developing countries, especially indigenous communities, are suffering because of that. Many companies are still using destructive methods to extract the commodities. It is necessary to speak to politicians, to explain what is happening in our countries, and that sustainable development is a necessity”  

Environmental justice was a big subject at the round table the Guardians of the forest took part in.  It brings to mind that environmentalism isn’t just about creating a nice place to play, it is about a way of life and living itself for the most vulnerable.  We must remember that our actions as consumers as interconnected people in a web of species have long reaching consequences.  

David, from Guarani tribe in Brazil “Everything has its spirits, every single element of nature taught us how to live. People that are disconnected from the nature are trying to kill us, remove us from our home. We are only defending our way of living, which is the most sacred to us. We have wisdom to leave in the nature; we are all leaving in the big communities via the voices of our ancestors. Day by day. We need to respect our land, she is our mother, and she teach us how to live in the harmony”.

Most of the problems that Indigenous people face are coming from overconsumption of the developed world; palm oil, raw materials, soya, fossil fuels. There is a necessity to raise the public awareness and to reduce the consumption. Exclusive By Zach Fitzner and Sasa Danon


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