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Papal encyclical gives hope to indigenous people

Pope Francis' Earth-friendly message embraces our values and way of life

June 16, 2015 1:00PM ET

On Thursday, Pope Francis will issue a highly anticipated encyclical on man, religion and the environment, a text that is expected to influence the outcome of the Paris climate talks in December.

We know already what side he is on.

During a January visit to typhoon-ravaged villages in the Philippines — my home country — he called on humanity to protect the earth, which he called “a beautiful garden for the human family.” And he captured headlines last year when he called the destruction of South America’s rain forests a “sin.” 

To the world’s 370 million indigenous people, many of whom live in overlooked and remote corners of the world, the pope’s words offer hope — regardless of whether they share his spiritual beliefs. As some of the first victims of climate change by virtue of their dependence on the world’s natural resources, these communities are finding themselves on the front lines of the environmental crisis. They are playing David against governments and developers eager to destroy their pristine forests, fields and streams to build mines, dams and agricultural plantations, all in the name of what the pope calls a “throw-away” economic system.

Far too many indigenous activists have become martyrs of this movement. A recent Global Witness report estimated that last year alone, 116 environmental activists died while trying to protect their lands from developers, as well as illegal loggers, drug traffickers and others whose criminal activities destroy our forests. Among these mostly indigenous fighters were seven activists from Argentina, the pope’s homeland. 

Ecuador, of course, was host to one of the first and most notorious cases of environmental violence against forest-dwelling indigenous peoples. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, Chevron knowingly dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste and oil into the rivers in the Ecuadorean Amazon, destroying streams, forests and farmlands and inflicting birth defects, cancer and poverty on six indigenous groups living there.

These groups fought back with lawsuits in the U.S. and Ecuador, but after more than two decades of protracted court battles, Chevron has failed to concede it did wrong. This case revealed to the world the agonizing difficulty of providing a level playing field to indigenous peoples, who are most vulnerable to climate change, and most vital in finding a way to slow it down. Yet the case hasn’t succeeded in stopping the violence that continues to endanger indigenous peoples.

The climate talks in Paris will fail if negotiators don't acknowledge the link between indigenous people and the health of the world’s natural resources.

Though often framed by land developers and government officials in some countries as a selfish refusal to embrace modernity and a new way of life, this quest to save indigenous lands and forests is motivated by a profound spiritual belief in the need to protect Mother Earth. Whether the voices come from the indigenous communities of Paraguay’s threated Chaco forests or the First Nations of Canada, I hear the same message on every continent: Forest peoples seek to honor the spirits of our elders and ensure that future generations can preserve their traditions and lifestyle.

Their work benefits us all. Curbing the activities of large corporations that grab and destroy our lands means reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Preventing deforestation helps, too: Forests function like the planet’s lungs, filtering and cleaning the air. Studies have shown that the 513 million hectares of forests that indigenous communities protect store 37.7 billion tons of carbon, making indigenous peoples a potent and valuable weapon in global efforts to end climate change.

In recent speeches on the climate, the pope has stressed humanity’s duty “to till the earth and to keep it.” For centuries, indigenous peoples who sustainably manage their forests have embodied this harmonious relationship between people and their natural surroundings. Communities across the globe have successfully “kept” their forests while “tilling” them with the utmost care to secure sustainable income sources, from wild honey and wax to fruits and fish. They take just enough to live and thrive — nothing more.

The pope would certainly agree that indigenous people offer invaluable lessons to a world seeking a sustainable future that eschews what he calls the “plunder” of nature. It’s time for leaders, CEOs and investors who say they care about the environment to finally acknowledge that indigenous people are a major part of the solution to global warming. And governments, on their part, should grant indigenous people strong, unambiguous rights over the land where they live. Researchers have shown that deforestation rates are significantly lower in community-managed forests where rights are strong and reinforced by local and national authorities.

The international community should take notice, too: The upcoming climate talks in Paris will fall short of reaching a comprehensive solution if negotiators do not acknowledge this link between indigenous rights and the health of the world’s natural resources.

As a member of the Kankana-ey Igorot in the Philippines, I, like the pope, was deeply touched by the destruction left in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. My indigenous brothers and sisters lost their homes, boats and livelihoods, and are recovering from the trauma still. They live simple, sustainable lives, in harmony with the forests, oceans and mountains around them, yet end up bearing the worst effects of climate change. They are not alone. In the Andes of Peru, melting glaciers threaten the lives of the indigenous Quechua, and in the northern stretches of Scandinavia and Finland, Sami herders are seeing reindeer populations drop as the weather warms. And in the Amazon forests of Ecuador, Brazil and Bolivia, indigenous peoples are finding their rain forests are drying out.   

We hope that having a visionary pope on our side will help the world to realize that it is best for indigenous people, the environment and the rest of humanity when we are free to focus on preserving our collective “beautiful garden” for future generations — instead of fighting for our lives.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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