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Indigenous communities are the best guardians of Latin America’s forests

Deforestation rates in Latin America are significantly lower in territories managed by indigenous and tribal groups that have been recognized with territorial rights, according to a report by the United Nations. The report suggests that indigenous communities are important wardens of local forests and improving the tenure security of these territories would be an effective and efficient way of reducing deforestation.

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The report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) is based on a review of more than 300 studies published in the last two decades. It reveals for the first time the extent to which science has shown that indigenous and tribal people have been the best guardians of the forests across Latin America over the years.

“Indigenous and tribal peoples and the forests in their territories play vital roles in global and regional climate action and in fighting poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. Their territories contain about one-third of all the carbon stored in the forests of Latin America,” FAO’s representative for Latin America, Julio Berdegué, said in a statement

Over 400 million hectares of land are currently occupied by indigenous people in Latin America. But governments have formally recognized property or usufruct rights on only 269 million hectares. Coincidentally, these are the ones to have registered the best results regarding deforestation rates – especially in countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, and Colombia.

One study included in the report found that from 2006 to 2012, forests managed by indigenous communities in Peru reduced deforestation by twice as much as other protected areas. Another study on the Amazon basin found indigenous territories lost 0.3% of the carbon in their forests between 2006 and 2016, compared to the 3.6% of non-protected land.

“Almost half of the intact forests in the Amazon Basin are in indigenous territories, Myrna Cunningham, president of Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC), said in a statement. “The evidence of their vital role in forest protection is crystal clear. Their voice and vision should be taken into account in global initiatives and frameworks.”

FAO urged Latin American governments to take action, firstly by recognizing communities with territorial rights. The costs of doing so are 5 to 42 times lower than the average costs of avoided greenhouse gas emissions through fossil carbon capture and storage for both coal and gas-fired power plants. Only $6 are needed to title a hectare of land in Colombia, for example.

The report also suggested reinforcing programs to compensate indigenous and tribal communities for their contributions to climate stability and nature conservation. Paying them for the environmental services they provide has reduced deforestation in countries such as Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru, as they use the funds to finance infrastructure, services, and value chains.

With generations of experience protecting nature, these communities have strong track records of guarding the forest. They favor smaller-scale and more diverse farming, taking less from the land. Unfortunately, they are also under constant threat from climate change and the expansion of beef and fossil fuel production as well as mining and logging.

These threats have led to growing forest loss and conflict. Annual deforestation rates in Brazil’s indigenous territories rose from 10,337 hectares in 2017 to 42,697 hectares in 2019. Between 2000 and 2016 the area of large undisturbed forests in indigenous territories fell by 20% in Bolivia, 30% in Honduras, 42% in Nicaragua, and 59% in Paraguay.

Uruguay, coronavirus and why people should obey the self-quarantine

While we shouldn’t panic, the coronavirus outbreak should be taken seriously. It’s new to humans, so we don’t have any way to fight it yet. That means we should do everything we can to prevent it from spreading from person-to-person.

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The virus arrived late in Latin America, mainly brought to the region by travelers arriving from European countries. Countries reacted fast and strong, closing their borders to foreigners, forcing people to stay at home, and asking those who arrived from Europe or China to self-quarantine.

Nevertheless, not everyone complied, and the effects are already visible. In Uruguay, Carmela Hontou, a fashion designer, returned from Europe and went to a 500-guest wedding, despite having symptoms of the virus. The result? 44 guests contracted the disease at the party.

This means that half of the 79 coronavirus cases in Uruguay, with 3.5 million inhabitants, can be linked to just a single person. Hontou went to the wedding a few hours after arriving from Spain, also meeting with her 84-year-old mother, and attending a lunch with a group of people the next day.

The fashion designer said she didn’t consider unwise attending the wedding while recognizing she had symptoms of coronavirus before going back to Uruguay. “I couldn’t even talk, I had 41 degrees of fever,” she told the news website Infobae. “I brought the subject [coronavirus] up with the doctor but he paid no attention.”

Breaking the quarantine rules could have legal consequences for Hontou. She may face legal charges due to “spreading contagious diseases,” as per Uruguay’s penal code, as well as her sons – who visited her mother, despite the fact that she should have been in quarantine.

In a similar episode, an Argentine who had arrived in Uruguay from Europe decided to flee the hospital where he was in observation and take a ferry to Argentina. In the middle of the trip, he started showing symptoms, so the onboard doctor performed a test of coronavirus, which was positive.

Over 400 people were traveling with him on the ferry, all of which are now forced to stay in hotels in quarantine for two weeks in case they also have the disease. “I want to believe he honestly didn’t know he had the virus before taking the ferry. If that’s not true, humanity is lost,” a passenger told a local media outlet.

Argentina, which has already confirmed 128 cases, is also having difficulties convincing people to stay at home. Despite a full lockdown of the country for two weeks, with people not going to work, hundreds decided to take their cars to the beach and use the days off from work as vacations.

The government is performing inspections on foreigners who recently arrived in the country to control if they are fulfilling the mandatory two-week quarantine, having already expelled 270 people for not doing so. Local trains, buses, and flights were canceled to discourage people from traveling.

Latin American countries hope to avoid a steep rise in the number of cases, as seen now in Spain and Italy. But for that to happen it’s of key importance to stay at home as much as possible, especially in the case of people who returned from high-risk countries.

The Escazú Agreement wants to protect environmental human rights in Latin America — but not everyone is on board

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Approved in 2018 after six years of negotiations, the Escazú Agreement is the first and single environmental human rights treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean – the region with one of the world’s richest biodiversity, but also very dangerous for environmental defenders.

The innovative pact was negotiated under the supervision of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). Its main objective is to guarantee citizen participation, access to information and access to justice in all environmental issues.

“Escazu is important for the world. It offers protection to human rights defenders on environmental issues. The need for such protection couldn’t be greater now,” said Mary Robinson, former UN human rights commissioner. “It’s an affirmation of the centrality of human rights to sustainable development.”

The agreement, which name comes from the Costa Rican town where it was signed, forces states to protect the people that defend the environment. But not just states. It is based on the spirit of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights regarding companies’ obligations to respect human rights, and aims to bring those principles into play when it comes to the environment.

It represents a victory for civil society, who had asked for such agreement for a long time. They hope that further access to information and wider participation could help to reduce the negative impacts of many extractive and infrastructure projects across Latin America.

“Escazu represents solidarity and international cooperation. It’s a pact between states and the society to do better and include social actors in all key discussions,” Jose Luis Samaniego, sustainable development head at ECLAC.

How is Escazú moving forward?

Despite being signed a year ago, the agreement hasn’t entered into force yet as it requires 11 of Latin America and the Caribbean’s 33 countries to ratify it. Only five have done that so far: Bolivia, Guyana, Saint Kitts, and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Uruguay.

A group of 16 countries have signed it but not ratified it: Colombia, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Granada, Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic and Saint Lucia.

Another group of 10 countries has not signed it: Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, El Salvador, Honduras, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela and Chile – among the most questioned because of being this year’s COP25 climate summit head.

“The Escazú agreement could help countries to enforce their local regulations on human rights and environmental issues,” said Rodolfo Godines, head of international affairs at Mexico’s Environmental ministry. “We have many pending issues in Mexico on human rights but Escazu can help us to move on the right direction.”

Why is Escazú important for Latin America?

The entry into force of the agreement could help bring down the numbers of the individuals killed every year in the region. Out of the 10 most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders, six are in Latin America: Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Peru.

The NGO Global Witness tracks every year the number of people killed because of standing up for their rights and defending the environment. In 2018, the figure reached 164 people, with more than half taking place in Latin America – the most violent region for environmental defenders in the world.

Among many well-known cases in the region, the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras has reached the headline of newspapers across the world. She was killed in 2016 after opposing the construction of a dam by the Chinese company Sinohydro.

A recent journalistic project called Land of Resistants, looked at the situation faced by environmental defenders in Latin America. They were subject to 1.356 attacks and incidences of violence between 2009 and 2019, according to the findings. Up to 50% of the attacks were targeted at people from ethnic minorities.