Colombia’s Piece of The Amazon

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This map of deforestation hotspots in the Colombian Amazon shows how concentrated they are in the Caqueta region (and to a lesser degree in Putumayo) and how the indigenous reserves near them are smaller and more fragmented. Credit: Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project/MAAP.

The Amazon Rainforest is the largest rainforest in the world, with a nickname of  “the lungs of the planet”. It covers an astonishing nine countries, Colombia being one of them. 10% of the Amazon rainforest is in Colombia, which makes up an area of 403,000 square kilometers. The forests are very important to Colombia, as the environment of Colombia is 80% forest.

Deforestation is the biggest threat to the Amazon rainforest, as well as all of the world’s other forests. Each year Colombia loses nearly 200,000 hectares of natural forest. An estimated 100,000 hectares of native forest are illegally cleared every year. Deforestation in Colombia results primarily from small-scale agricultural activities, logging, mining, energy development, infrastructure construction, large-scale agriculture, and the cocaine trade.

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A view of the National Serranía de Chiribiquete National Park and some of its small tepuis and beautiful landscape. 

On September 21, 1989, The National Serranía de Chiribiquete National Park was reserved. In July 2018, the national park was expanded by more than twice its original size, from 2.7 million hectares to nearly 4.3 million (that’s like adding Northern Ireland to it!), making it the world’s largest tropical rainforest national park.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos welcomed UNESCO’s decision to designate Chiribiquete a heritage site, declaring it “great news for Colombia”. To celebrate the decision and formalise the extension of the park, the president announced his intention to visit the site within the next week of its expansion in July. In addition he vowed to boost the country’s conservation budget with an extra $525m (£398m) to “protect and defend our environment”.

As Chiribiquete is the confluence point of four biogeographical provinces, (Orinoquia, Guyana, Amazonia, and North Andes) not only is it special for having an incredibly diverse ecosystem, but also for its historical importance as well. Some 75,000 rock pictographs have been found on the walls of 60 rock shelters at the foot of table-top mountains or mesas. The portrayals are interpreted as scenes of hunting, battles, dances and ceremonies, all of which are linked to a purported cult of the jaguar, seen as a symbol of power and fertility. Such practices are thought to reflect a coherent system of thousand-year-old sacred beliefs, organizing and explaining the relations between the cosmos, nature and man. The archaeological sites are believed to be accessed even today by uncontacted indigenous groups.

The Union of Traditional Yage Medics of the Colombian Amazon (UMIYAC) brings together five ethnic groups ­— the Cofán, Inga, Siona, Coreguaje, and Kamëntsá — who practice spiritual ceremonies for individual and community healing based on ayahuasca, or yagé. All five of these Indigenous groups are also classified by Colombia’s Constitutional Court as being at “risk of physical and cultural extermination.” Miguel Evanjuanjoy, advocacy and project manager of UMIYAC, says “As stewards of the Amazon rainforest, we care for the land because it is she who nourishes us spiritually and through her sacred products.”

According to Gaia Amazonas, intact Indigenous groups are key to protecting the Amazon rainforest. The organization recently published the results of 30 years’ worth of data collected by the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG) showing that indigenous-controlled territories lost less than 1% of their forest during that time. That compares with more than 3% forest loss across the Colombian Amazon in general in the same period. Recent research that looked at 245 Indigenous territories in the Amazon over a span of more than 30 years shows that, indeed, indigenous groups are the best stewards of the Amazon rainforest, especially when they have autonomy and full land rights. But environmentalists still struggle to find ways to ensure those rights. For UMIYAC, the answer lies in their ancestral spiritual practices.

While the world is struggling with conserving ecosystems and forest necessary for all life on earth, some places, like Colombia, seem like they are heading in the right direction.

First Nations, Last Place

It’s easy to think about America when it comes to the challenges of indigenous people’s rights, but much like its outspoken neighbor, quiet Canada has had its fair share of struggles when it has come to giving indigenous people- or the First Nations peoples- equal rights and protections under federal law.

Of Canada’s 37.59 million residents, around 1,400,685 million people have some sort of aboriginal identity, according to the 2011 census. While that may seem small, it totals to around 4.3% of Canada’s entire population. However, of that 1,400,685 million, only 851,560 people identify as a part of the First Nations people- Canada’s all-encompassing term for indigenous groups and peoples- representing roughly 60% of the aboriginal identity and around 2.6% of Canada’s total population.

Despite a good portion of the population identifying as some variation of First Nations, Canada has a controversial history when it comes to equality for First Nations peoples. From selling indigenous land to companies without consulting the people of that land, to what is known as Canada’s ‘cultural genocide,’ the brutal state-funded, church-run Indian Residential School systems that systematically stripped indigenous children of their culture, language, and identities. The schools were home to high levels of abuse, rape, and negligence that ended in an estimated 6,000 aboriginal children dying. The schooling system ran from 1876 to 1996, and while modern authorities apologize, it still remains a nasty, oozing sore in Canada’s history.

(One of Canada’s state-funded, church-run Indian Residential School systems)

Currently, one of the largest barriers facing the indigenous people of Canada is the painstakingly slow implementation of protective laws. The laws exist but are yet to be upheld on a wide scale. This includes laws protecting First Nations peoples from corporations, protection of land, strong federal aid, safer child welfare and foster care, and protections against violence against indigenous peoples.

However, while this is still a clear work in progress, in the last few decades, Canada has been working to improve its rather lackluster system and policies regarding the indigenous people of Canada. In 2010, Canada endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007), which was surprising, because although the Declaration passed with 144 countries voting in favor of it, Canada was one of the four nations that voted against it, alongside Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. However, while the document outlines that governments employ the basic needs, or, as quoted from the document itself: “[What] constitute[s] the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous Peoples of the world.”

The document also grants indigenous peoples the rights to govern themselves, own property, access to nondiscriminatory education, healthcare, and employment, and even rights as simple as collective and individual rights. While Canada has been slow to implement regulations, particularly protections of the land of First Nations peoples against predatory corporations, the Canadian government has been making efforts to improve their rocky relationship with their indigenous residents.

In addition, in 2016 the Canadian government began a national investigation into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls, a group disproportionately targeted in Canada. Indigenous women and girls are twelve times more likely to be targeted for rape, violence, and kidnapping than any other group in Canada. While Justin Trudeau promised a further action plan that was set for release in June 2020 to prevent the disproportionate murder, rape, abuse, and abductions of First Nations women and girls, the Canadian government has halted the project “citing COVID-19.”

(Indigenous women protest in Quebec for the investigations of murders and disappearances of First Nations women)

In more recent history, COVID-19 struck indigenous communities hard in 2020, although many are back to maintaining a slow decrease in the percentages of cases. One of the main difficulties resulting in a disproportionate amount of infections- not just from COVID-19 but other illnesses such as HIV, Influenza, TB, and HepC- has always been the remoteness of First Nation geographic locations, access to proper housing, clean drinking water, and healthcare. Despite Canada’s long legacy of ignoring or not prioritizing the health of indigenous peoples, they repeated their mistakes in 2020 when they failed to provide any COVID-19 funding or aid at all until indigenous leaders expressed their deep concerns for the endangerment of their people and the growing risks of COVID-19. And when aid finally arrived, the amount allocated to First Nations peoples was a mere 1% of the COVID-19 response budget. Indigenous communities worked hard to allocate the aid evenly and created travel restrictions within their territory, modified many of their traditions, and worked hard to slow the spread of the virus. While ultimately indigenous communities have handled the virus better than the general Canadian public, the lack of initial aid from the government is a sharp reminder that Canada still has a long way to go.

Have things gotten better? Yes. But there is still clearly a long way to go. While it might be easy to see Canada as a gold standard for addressing indigenous rights, that does not erase a history of neglect, and it does not mean the Canadian government’s job is finished. While they seem to be on the right track, to turn eyes away from such a historically challenging and currently pressing issue would be premature.