Marcelo Lucitante, a member of the Cofan indigenous guard, in the Amazon rainforest in northern Ecuador, holds a spear while on patrol near his village of Sinangoe, on April 21, 2022. Indigenous guards patrol their ancestral lands to keep illegal gold miners, poachers and hunters at bay.
BOGOTA/BELEM, Brazil--For two decades, Indigenous leader Nemo Guiquita has been battling in vain to get politicians to heed pleas to protect her Amazon rainforest home in Ecuador from illegal loggers, gold miners and oil companies.
Guiquita, 38, is hopeful that a summit of leaders of Amazon nations in Brazil on Aug. 8-9 will be her best chance yet to be heard, but says Indigenous peoples must be at the negotiating table for any regional pact to work. "If deforestation continues, it will be irreversible. Time is running out," she said. "It's very important for the world to understand that we have reached the point of no return," said Guiquita, from the 2,000-strong Waorani community and who will attend the summit in the Amazonian city of Belem. "We don't want closed-door meetings. We want decisions to be taken by Indigenous groups who are the owners of the Amazon," said Guiquita, a leader in CONFENIAE, the main organization of Indigenous groups in Ecuador's Amazon. Organizers say the summit will be "inclusive", giving Indigenous peoples a role alongside government leaders and researchers in designing conservation policies. The Waorani are one of some 400 Indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest. Scientists say the Amazon rainforest may be close to a tipping point, driven by forest clearances and global warming, that could dry the region and transform rainforest into savanna in coming decades. Protecting the world's largest rainforest, a vast natural store of carbon stretching across eight South American nations and the overseas territory of French Guiana, can help slow climate change which is powering more heatwaves, wildfires, floods, droughts and storms globally. The summit in Brazil will discuss how to better conserve the rainforest and promote its sustainable use, stem biodiversity loss and attract funding. Guiquita and other Indigenous leaders say they are hopeful that Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Colombia's President Gustavo Petro will value their expertise in protecting the Amazon. "It's the first time a (Colombian) government has recognized that we play an important role in protecting the environment and the Amazon through our knowledge," said Oswaldo Muca, head of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC), who will attend the summit. A growing body of scientific research shows that recognizing and enforcing land rights for Indigenous peoples, and valuing their expertise and governance systems, are vital for nature conservation. Across the Amazon, forest loss is largely driven by an expansion of land-grabbing, cattle ranching and agriculture, along with illegal mining and logging. The alignment of the leftist presidents of Brazil and Colombia, and their shared commitment to preserve the rainforest, is raising hopes of wider regional cooperation. "With Lula and Petro, there's an opportunity to protect the Amazon. The alliance between the two presidents on environmental issues is beneficial," said Manuel Rodriguez Becerra, a former Colombian environment minister. "The person who can summon up international cooperation to protect the Amazon is Lula," he added. Petro and Lula forged their partnership when they met in July in Colombia's Amazonian town of Leticia to lay the groundwork for the Belem summit. The two have made progress on stemming forest loss since they both took office less than a year ago. Deforestation in Brazil - home to the largest share of the Amazon - dropped by 34% in the first half of 2023 to the lowest in four years, according to preliminary government data. "The expectation is that as Indigenous people we can contribute and participate in policy-making from the start," said Indigenous leader Muca. "We have high hopes that with these two governments the political discourse becomes a reality," he said. Kleber Karipuna, head of APIB, Brazil's largest Indigenous umbrella organization, welcomed Lula's creation of the nation's first Ministry of Indigenous Peoples this year and a crackdown on illegal mining in Yanomami indigenous lands. "Drug trafficking and illegal small-scale mining have grown a lot on Indigenous territories and in border regions in Brazil and other countries over the last four years," Karipuna said. Lula has pledged to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030 after it hit a 15-year-high in the Amazon under his predecessor far-right Jair Bolsonaro, who did not attend the last major regional summit on Amazon protection hosted by Colombia in 2019. That summit's declarations had scant impact. Henrique Pereira, agronomy professor and special advisor for international affairs at the Federal University of Amazonas, said Lula aims to use the Belem summit "to lead the remaining countries to commit to zero deforestation" in the Amazon, and strengthen commitments already made. Colombia has also pledged zero deforestation by 2030. Lula aims to present that shared vision to the United Nations General Assembly in September, where confronting climate change is expected to be a central part of his message. He also intends to consolidate a consensus from Amazon nations as well as Indonesia, Congo Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo - which are home to large tropical forests - ahead of the COP28 U.N. climate summit later this year. In other Amazon countries, though, pressing issues including lethal prison riots and waves of violence in Ecuador and street protests in Peru risk diverting attention away from the summit. "Ecuador and Peru are in a political mess, so it's not clear if protecting the Amazon can be a priority for them," said Becerra.