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After Rio+20, Indigenous Leaders Look for Answers Outside of Conference

Posted on July, 14 2012

by Ryan Luckey -

(Photo: Ryan Luckey)

As the dust from the Rio+20 conference settles, there is a clear consensus among environmental organizations and Indigenous activists that no significant progress was made towards building a global alliance to work for a sustainable future.

‘It was anticipated that there would not be great progress this week. What was surprising was that we actually went backwards,’ Brazilian environmental activist Thomas Enlazador told Común Tierra. ‘The absence of an agreement for concrete action from the UN and its agents just delays an unavoidable situation. The consequence will be the worsening of poverty, further loss of biodiversity, the privatization of water and seeds and the growing social divide between rich and poor.’

The official document produced by the Conference, entitled ‘The Future We Want,’ consists of a vague outline of the world’s resources and the threats to those resources, and does not address the root causes of the environmental and social crises that face the current and future generations. The agreement is not binding, and closes with a mere invitation to individual nations to make their own choices about what action to take:

‘We welcome the commitments voluntarily entered into at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development and throughout 2012 by all stakeholders and their networks to implement concrete policies, plans, programmes, projects and actions to promote sustainable development and poverty eradication.’

While some celebrated the fact that an agreement was reached and signed, activists observed that for the indigenous peoples of Brazil and the world whose livelihoods are threatened by the continued abuse of natural resources, the event failed to provide any new alternatives.

Indigenous Participation

Mariano Terena delivers the Kari-Oca 2 statement to the UN, June 21 2012 (Photo: Giulia Afiune)

While not invited to the conference’s official decision-making sessions, the Rio events brought together Indigenous representatives from hundreds of ethnic groups from South America and the whole world to convene and express their own demands for human rights and sustainable practices.

‘I consider this gathering to be very important because it brings together a large number of indigenous peoples from Brazil and from other countries as well,’ Ianaculá Rodarte of the Kamayurá tribe, from the Upper Xingu region, told Común Tierra. ‘It’s really important to get together to be able to discuss the problems we are facing, situations we are suffering, problems we are confronting, so that we can unify our proposals, because we see that our proposals are identical.’

At the Kari-Oca 2 camp, where the majority of visiting Indigenous representatives stayed, leaders met to write their own document that was signed by tribal leaders from around the world and then delivered to the United Nations conference. On June 21st, more than 400 Indigenous people marched from their camp to the conference, where they asked to address the gathering.

‘The governments and the people need to hear us, because we have a lot of proposals of solutions for this crisis we are living today,’ demanded Chief Wilden Bloliget of Australia.

‘Our traditional knowledge, our cultures and practices are in harmony with Mother Earth, and that’s why they are sustainable.’

The Indigenous delegation was not granted entrance to the conference. Instead, a UN representative met with them outside to receive the document, but few of their demands were incorporated into the UN document’s final text.

Amazonian Tribes Speak Out

Mapulu Kamayurá went to Rio+20 to call attention to the exploitation and development of her home region, the Upper Xingu. (Photo: Ryan Luckey)

Leading up to the conference, some activists questioned whether Brazil was actually coherent in hosting the event amidst several recent developments in the nation’s commitment to protecting its portion of the Amazon, which accounts for 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest. Just a month ago, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff signed into law a new Forest Code that environmental groups say actually encourages further exploitation of the Amazon.

The destruction of the Amazon is largely spurred by the advance of cattle raising and Genetically Modified Soy cultivation.

Large-scale ranchers have been illegally burning down the rainforest and then moving in to capitalize on the fertility of the virgin soils, pushing further and further into the Amazon basin. The new Forest Code lessens penalties for illegal settlers, and allows greater exploitation of forested lands throughout Brazil, including in the Amazon region.

‘We came here to call attention to our struggles back home in the Xingu,’ Mapulu Kamayurá also of the Kamayurá tribe, told us. ‘We don’t want any more ranchers to come into the Xingu. Many white people are arriving there, and destroying the forests. And now the government wants to build a highway right through one of our sacred sites. Please tell the government, we don’t want the highway inside our territory.’

Belo Monte

The Belo Monte Dam is another project that has set off alarms from environmental groups around the world. The dam is planned for construction on the Xingu River in the Amazon Basin, and with an energy production capacity of just over 11,000 Megawatts, Belo Monte would have the third highest hydroelectric capacity in the world, after the Three Gorges Dam in China and the Itaipu Dam on the Brazil-Paraguay border.

However, Belo Monte has one characteristic that critics say make it one of the most inefficient energy projects in the world. Due to seasonal fluctuations in the Xingu River, the dam would only be operational at full capacity 4 months of the year, and it’s possible that for several months during low tides the dam would be virtually inactive. Experts estimate the dam’s productivity will average out to 4,500 Megawatts, about 40% of its capacity.

The dam, on which construction began in early 2012, would directly affect tens of thousands of Indigenous who live in the surrounding area. An estimated 20,000 – 40,000 people would lose their homes and need to be relocated. Additionally, the dam will dry up large parts of the Xingu River, affecting local fish populations that are already stretching thin, potentially disrupting the most important food source for the entire region.

Activists warn that Belo Monte could be the beginning of a wave of over 100 hydroelectric projects in the Amazon region.

‘In this economic model Brazil is following, moving forward like a steamroller, it rolls right over people,’ Ianaculá Rodarte told me. ‘It doesn’t matter what is in front, you got to get out of the way… there is no consultation or conversation to hear the vision of the indigenous people.’

Is this the way forward for a nation often hailed as the country of the future?

‘Brazil could be taking world leadership in the environmental area,’ Enlazador observed, ‘but instead we are going the opposite direction, repealing environmental protection and following the corporate agenda to further exploit our natural resources at the expense of the environment and the Indigenous people of our country.’

‘False Solutions’

The Kari-Oca 2 document is held high during its release ceremony at the Rio+20 Aldea Kari-Oca. (Photo: Ryan Luckey)

The Kari-Oca 2 document, written by the Indigenous leaders and signed on June 18th 2012, proclaims the rights of Indigenous peoples to land, water, and their culture and traditions, and warns of the false solutions of the ‘Green Economy’ model:

‘We consider that the objectives of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) Rio+20, the "Green Economy" and its argument that the world can "save" nature by commodifying her capacity to sustain life as a continuation of colonialism that we Indigenous Peoples and our Mother Earth have withstood for 520 years.

We demand that the United Nations, governments and companies abandon false solutions to climate change, such as large hydroelectric dams, genetically modified organisms, including genetically modified trees, plantations, agro fuels, "clean coal", nuclear power, natural gas, the transposition of the rivers, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, bio energy, biomass, biochar, geoengineering, carbon markets and REDD + that endanger the future and life as we know it.’

Their message is simple. We must stop looking for development projects and new marketable technologies to address the world’s challenges. In some cases, they say, these false solutions are actually erasing the traditional knowledge of perennial cultures that have lived sustainably for thousands of years.

Instead, they suggest we ‘recognize the traditional systems of resource management of Indigenous peoples that have existed sustainably for thousands of years,’ focusing on protecting water and seed biodiversity to increase food sovereignty.

‘We invite all civil society to protect and promote our rights and world views and respect the law of nature, our spirituality and culture and our values of reciprocity, harmony with nature, solidarity and collectivity.’

Lessons learned from Rio+20

Grandmother Mona Polaca, a Havasupai, Tewa and Hopi elder from North America, traveled to Rio to participate in the People’s Summit. She explained that the Indigenous peoples have been trying for a long time to do things the Western way, to sign treaties, to use the courts, but that things have only gotten worse.

‘We have been fooled into thinking that these so called leaders have the best interests at heart of the people,’ she told us. ‘Now we are realizing that what we must do is reclaim our power to determine how we are going to survive, how we are going to live in this world.’

‘Respect the natural laws. That’s all we’re saying. Respect life. Create balance. And respect the people who choose not live under this capitalistic society.’

Rio+20 is over, and Ianaculá Rodarte is going back home to the Amazon basin, where he will report back to his community what has happened during the events, and what they have learned.

‘In our region of the Xingu there are 14 tribes, each with their own language. It’s time to unite, to strengthen culturally and spiritually to be able to confront these challenges that come from outside.’

‘We must focus on our own unity, our own strength. That is what can help us now.’

This article was written by Ryan Luckey after participation at Rio+20. As it was not picked up by any major news source, we are publishing it here with a Creative Commons license, so feel free to re-publish and share as you wish with credit given to the author.


  • Micki, dia Posted on August, 14 2012

    Excellent reporting Ryan! This important story should reach a large audience-

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