By Agustín del Castillo
For 20 years, the Colima fir tree (Abies colimensis) has been at the heart of many disputes to conserve the temperate forests of southern Jalisco, a state in central Mexico. Today, the future of this tree rests upon whether the area's avocado crops will advance further and whether neighboring communities will unite to protect it.
The Nevado de Colima volcano stands 4,260 meters (13,976 feet) above sea level. Agustín del Castillo<p>According to biologist José Villa Castillo, the director of Nevado de Colima National Park and Nevado de Colima Cloud Forest State Park, it is imperative to stop the commercialization of the tree's timber and to create policies that conserve the forests in which it lives. Villa Castillo also supported the inclusion of the tree on the endangered species list.</p><p>Villa Castillo acknowledged the enormous challenge of conserving this tree, and he said the pressure to exploit its timber without sustainable management is far from the only problem. The expansion of the nearby avocado industry also threatens its survival.</p><p>When allowed to grow, the Colima fir tree can become monumental: It can reach 60 meters (196 feet) in height and 2 m (6.5 ft) in diameter. To protect this giant, specialists and communities often promote ecotourism and conservation projects inside the national and state parks that surround the Nevado de Colima volcano.</p>
Fires That Clear Land for Avocado Crops<p>In 2012, a group of researchers from the University of Guadalajara proposed to the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) the recognition of the <em>A. colimensis</em> as a unique species to differentiate it from the sacred fir (<em>A. religiosa</em>), which is the dominant fir tree in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, a collection of volcanoes in central Mexico.</p><p>The Colima fir tree "has extremely low genetic diversity; it has the lowest known genetic diversity among all the species in the Abies genus in Mesoamerica and one of the lowest among all the species of trees on the planet," according to the authors of the proposal to recognize the tree as an endangered species. The area it occupies "is very limited": just 15,002 hectares (37,071 acres), or 0.007% of the territory of Mexico.</p><p>The Nevado de Colima volcano, which stands 4,260 meters (13,976 feet) above sea level, is one of only eight peaks that exceed 4,000 m (13,123 ft) in Mexico. It is only 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Pacific Ocean and is considered an "evolutionary island" because the ecosystems in its high-altitude areas drive unique adaptations in species and are cut off from other ecosystems by hundreds of kilometers. The Colima fir tree is an example of the area's biological differentiation, according to Libertad Arredondo, a researcher and expert on the ecology of high mountains.</p>
The fir forests are mainly located in the middle of slopes or in ravines. Agustín del Castillo<p>Even though the tree has remained on that "evolutionary island," its situation has become increasingly complicated by the impact of deforestation, which was propelled by the issuance of permits for forest exploitation. Fires, started to convert the land to agriculture or other uses, also present a threat to the ecosystem, according to the experts who suggested the tree should be considered endangered.</p><p>The researchers said the tree's future prospects are further complicated by its slow growth rate, its high degree of genetic erosion, the effects of climate change, and the movement of clouds to higher altitudes. The position of clouds is crucial because they act as an essential source of moisture for fir trees.</p><p>Villa Castillo, an expert in pine genetics and reproduction, said the Colima fir tree has never been successfully reproduced in nurseries, which would likely make it impossible to conduct reforestation efforts to help repopulate the species.</p><p>The forests that contain the Colima fir tree are in cold, humid climates, with very little light reaching the understory, and they're mainly located in the middle of slopes or in ravines. The species thrives when surrounded by oak trees, coniferous trees and other types of vegetation common in mountainous cloud forests. The tree also requires a primary habitat with little disturbance from humans.</p><p>According to Villa Castillo, fire kills most Colima fir tree seedlings, as it kills seedlings of other species in the <em>Abies</em> genus. In recent years, more fires have been started in the forest to clear the way for avocado trees.</p>
A tree and other vegetation in the cloud forest surrounding the Nevado de Colima volcano. Agustín del Castillo<p>Sonia Navarro Pérez, a researcher from the University of Guadalajara who has monitored and conducted biological inventories in the area, has seen firsthand how the growth of the avocado industry has led to the loss of important forested areas.</p><p>She described the case of the indigenous community of San José del Carmen, which is in the municipality of Zapotitlán de Vadillo, near one of the patches of forest.</p><p>"We were working with them to establish productive alternatives that are good for nature," Navarro Pérez said. "But when the avocado came, it overwhelmed us completely."</p><p>Since 2013, the coniferous forests around the Nevado de Colima volcano have lost nearly 6,600 hectares (16,300 acres) due to illegal logging, livestock rearing and intentionally set fires, according to Mexico's deforestation risk index developed by the <a href="https://www.gob.mx/inecc" target="_blank">National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change</a>.</p>
A section of cloud forest in San José del Carmen, inside the state park created in 2009. Community members have been protecting the forest voluntarily for over two decades. Agustín del Castillo<p>"[What was once] an original area of 7,000 hectares [17,300 acres] of fir-specific forest is now cut in half," said Villa Castillo, the director of the Nevado de Colima national and state parks.</p><p>The expansion of the avocado crops is the most recent threat in a series of events that have negatively impacted the conservation of the forests in the area.</p><p>Between the 1940s and the 1990s, the Atenquique Industrial Company had exclusive rights to use the timber from these forests under a concession from the Mexican government. The result was "that the forests were skimmed — that is, they took the best parts," Villa Castillo said.</p><p>When the concession expired in 1995, the forests did not experience a transition to a sustainable timber extraction method. Those who, along with landowners who held small plots, had rights to the shared land were limited to selling the forested areas, at very low prices, to the new logging industries located in Ciudad Guzmán. "Then, there were many abuses against the communities. The money was given to the caciques" — families who have always controlled the shared land — "alms were left for the community, and our forests were very poorly managed," said Rafael González Merín, the former president of Huescalapa, a collective of communally owned farmland known as an <em>ejido</em>.</p><p>As a result, many residents of the community believe the solution is to conserve the forests with productive projects.</p>
Communities Pitch in to Save Their Trees<p>Unlike the communities that have been overtaken by the avocado industry, Huescalapa has largely managed to resist its arrival. The community of shared land, which spans more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres), is home to pine and fir trees within its shady temperate forests.</p><p>The residents of Huescalapa have also set aside the proposals they've received from the forestry industry, which has expressed interest in buying their trees.</p><p>According to Gerardo Bernabé Aguayo, logging activity in this area of Jalisco "has been very negative because the industry has managed delicate areas — with very limited species — poorly, so we are supporting and launching projects with the communities." Bernabé Aguayo is the president of the board of trustees of Nevado de Colima and Adjacent Basins, a civil association created about 20 years ago after being promoted by the government of the state of Jalisco. To support the conservation of the national and state parks, the board has financing from the regional private sector.</p><p>The board manages about 6 million pesos ($268,000) contributed by the federal government in 2020. With resources from the private sector, it has been able to access an additional 1.5 million pesos ($67,000).</p>
An area of fir trees that has been destroyed by logging. Agustín del Castillo<p>Rodrigo Cantera Hernández, the president of the El Alcázar Ecotourism Center, said that in Huescalapa, the caciques removed timber from the fir forests, "but they did not report any money to the other community members, so we fought to eject them and were able to do so a couple of years ago."</p><p>In Huescalapa, three main conflicts over timber have taken place in the past 20 years. First, in 1999, a group of community members sold part of the forest to a forestry industry from Ciudad Guzmán. A movement led by citizens put an end to the logging five months later.</p><p>Next, in 2012, environmental authorities granted permission for forest exploitation in these areas, so fir trees continued to be cut down. An opinion by the <a href="https://www.ideaac.org.mx/" target="_blank">Institute of Environmental Law</a>, a civil society organization, cited scientific evidence that demonstrated the uniqueness of mountain fir trees and forced SEMARNAT to withdraw these permissions.</p>
The citizens of Huescalapa formed a cooperative to launch the El Alcázar Ecotourism Center. El Alcázar Ecotourism Center<p>Then, in 2015, a federal judge suspended a new authorization to exploit timber in the cloud forest.</p><p>For communities like Huescalapa to have economic options that do not involve the use of timber because of the detrimental effects that this may have on the remaining population of Colima fir trees, ecotourism and similar activities are promoted.</p><p>According to Bernabé Aguayo, the goal is for the natural forest to be conserved as "a key area for contemplation, enjoyment, the preservation of environmental services, and research."</p><p>In 2019, the cooperative in El Alcázar received 1 million pesos ($44,600), which allowed it to have the basic infrastructure for the ecotourism center. The cooperative may receive an additional 3 million pesos ($133,800) in 2020 to purchase more equipment and improve the roads, but support for this funding was blocked in a community assembly. "They have not understood that it is for the benefit of everyone, that it is not money for our pockets," said Cantera Hernández, the president of the cooperative.</p><p>In Huescalapa, one of the challenges that interferes with efforts to promote the ecotourism center is the division that exists between community members. Many seek to use the timber, but others are already convinced of the importance of conservation.</p><p>Villa Castillo, the director of the Nevado de Colima national and state parks, emphasized that projects similar to the El Alcázar Ecotourism Center are being promoted in San José del Carmen and Zapotitlán de Vadillo, which are very close to the border between the states of Jalisco and Colima.</p>
María de la Luz Cortés Reyes, the leader of the Amixtlán cooperative, which was created in San José del Carmen. Agustín del Castillo<p>The Amixtlán Ecotourism Center is located in the community of San José del Carmen. A cluster of cabins marks the entrance to the cloud forest, designated a state park since 2009.</p><p>"We decided to protect our forest long before they declared the state park, 20 years before then," said María de la Luz Cortés Reyes, a community leader in San José del Carmen. She recalled that when loggers came with offers to buy the forest, members of the community believed that they offered very little payment and that "the damage [that the loggers left] was too much." For that reason, they decided "not to touch the forest, because it produces water for the crops and for our houses."</p><p>Cortés Reyes said the community was able to construct the ecotourism center because it had resources managed by the Nevado de Colima Cloud Forest State Park and by the Board of Trustees of Nevado de Colima and Adjacent Basins. However, she said it is important that more promotion is given to the area and that urgent problems, such as those with the water supply system, are resolved.</p>
A view of the Nevado de Colima volcano from the Amixtlán Ecotourism Center in San José del Carmen. Agustín del Castillo<p>In the community of Zapotitlán de Vadillo, citizens also promoted the Puerta de la Hacienda Ecotourism Center, where administrators support the biocultural production of mezcal, an alcoholic beverage made from agave. The drink is made by two <em>mezcaleros</em>, or people who are experts in creating mezcal: Marcario Partida from Zapotitlán de Vadillo, and Rosario Pineda from Tetapán, a small community in Zapotitlán de Vadillo.</p><p>Other productive projects that are promoted in the communities include the organic production of eggs, such as by Efigenia Larios, a small producer from the community of El Tecuán. Additionally, the shared land communities of Zapotitlán de Vadillo, San José del Carmen and Huescalapa are provided with equipment for fire prevention and materials to help restore the forest soil.</p><p>Artists have painted murals that shine a spotlight on forest conservation in San José del Carmen and Zapotitlán de Vadillo.</p><p>The intention of these efforts is to allow those who own land or have rights on this fragile mountain to "understand that there are other options besides logging, and that they, too, can generate development," said Arredondo, the researcher who specializes in the ecology of high mountains.</p><p>Despite the strong pressure for land use changes brought by the avocado agroindustry and fostered by the high level of impunity that often prevails in rural areas, many of the area's landowners continue to search for a model in which their forests can remain standing.</p><p>"Many neighbors say that we are foolish for not wanting to sell this beautiful forest that we have, but that money only lasts for a short time," said José Avalo Lino, a farmer in San José del Carmen. "We are so certain of [the importance of] preventing logging that, long before the declaration of the natural protected area, our community assembly had already decided to save this forest. We will continue to be 'foolish' in this decision."</p>
By Ajit Niranjan
Civil society groups and public prosecutors in Brazil are taking President Jair Bolsonaro's government to court for failing to protect the Amazon rainforest, adding pressure to an administration already under fire for mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic.
Coronavirus and Deforestation<p>Brazil's environmental and health crises are closely linked. The coronavirus pandemic had given fresh impetus to land grabbers razing swathes of forests as lockdowns have kept law enforcement officers at home.</p><p>Now, the fires that typically follow the felling of trees could further strain health systems.</p><p>Blazing wildfires, like the ones that devastated the Amazon last year, spout pollutants that lower air quality and work their way into people's lungs, exacerbating the same <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-air-pollution-might-raise-risk-of-fatality/a-52977422" target="_blank">breathing diseases</a> that leave people more vulnerable to the coronavirus. A joint peak in forest fires and COVID-19 cases could overwhelm hospitals without "incisive intervention by the State to curb illegal acts," according to a report published in May by INPE.</p><p>That could collapse health systems in several Amazonian states that are already operating at the limit, the authors wrote. "If the turning point of the epidemiological curve of COVID-19 does not occur immediately, in May 2020, there will certainly be an overlap of fires with the pandemic."</p><p>This could spell disaster for indigenous peoples and uncontacted tribes, said Sarah Shenker, a campaigner with Survival International. "In Brazil, there are more than 100 uncontacted tribes and they could be wiped out if invaders are not removed from their territory."</p><p>Even before the current coronavirus crisis, scientists warned that <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/how-deforestation-can-lead-to-more-infectious-diseases/a-53282244" target="_blank">forest loss makes pandemics more likely</a> by increasing the chance that diseases jump from animals to humans. A study published in the journal PNAS in October found that deforestation of the Amazon significantly increases transmission of malaria, a different type of disease.</p>
Preserving the Climate<p>The Amazon rainforest — 60 percent of which lies in Brazil — is one of the world's great carbon sinks. Preserving its trees and plants is crucial to meeting international targets that <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/co2-emissions-gap-un-report-warns-of-collective-failure-to-act/a-51407286" target="_blank">limit global warming</a> to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.</p><p>Lawsuits that take years to complete are not going to produce results fast enough, said Ricardo Galvao, a former director of INPE who was <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/brazils-research-chief-sacked-after-deforestation-row-with-bolsonaro/a-49874119" target="_blank">fired by Bolsonaro</a> in August.</p><p>To curb deforestation in the Amazon, said Galvao, the best tools are "positive actions that show [that] exploring the forest, rather than destroying it, gives economic returns." For instance, international organizations like the UN could certify products from sustainably managed forests and countries could lower import taxes on such "green-stamped" goods.</p>
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By Hans Nicholas Jong
The Indonesian government has backed down from a decision to scrap its timber legality verification process for wood export, amid criticism from activists and the prospect of being shut out of the lucrative European market.
By Lamfu Fabrice Yengong and Sylvie Djacbou Deugoue
Biodiversity loss is a global crisis. In May last year, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned that over 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction worldwide. On May 22, the International Day of Biodiversity, it is important to recall the silent victims of our country's obsession for industrial growth at the expense of our forests.
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Australia's unprecedented wildfires that raged for months and destroyed millions of acres were likely made worse by industrial logging of native forests, according to a new commentary from five scientists published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Carrol Inlet in the Tongass National Forest on Aug. 9, 2018. Brock Martin, USFS
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Brazil's divisive President Jair Bolsonaro has taken another step in his bold plans to develop the Amazon rainforest.
Riches Now in Reach<p>The Amazon possesses a wealth of minerals including <a href="https://www.cell.com/one-earth/pdf/S2590-3322(19)30081-8.pdf" target="_blank">gold, diamonds, iron ore, manganese, copper, zinc and tin</a>. But the region is so remote, with its southern edge lying 1,000 miles from Rio de Janeiro, that resource extraction was <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-8306.2007.00564.x" target="_blank">long limited by transportation costs</a>.</p><p>This began to change in the 1970s, when Brazil's military government <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/btp.12610" target="_blank">built several new highways</a> through the Amazon. It paid little heed to the desires or safety of the <a href="http://www.precog.com.br/bc-texto/obras/pagliaro-9788575412541.pdf" target="_blank">140,000 Native people</a> living there.</p><p>Terrible abuses occurred, including the military's systematic killing from 1967 to 1977 of up to 2,000 <a href="https://apnews.com/9b7372ee4abc4b0aa659bdfb82492851" target="_blank">Waimiri-Atroari people</a> to make way for <a href="https://lab.org.uk/brazil-waimiri-atroari-indigenous-massacre/" target="_blank">a road to the Amazonian capital of Manaus</a>.</p><p>The territorial aggressions culminated in the 1980s, when <a href="https://pib.socioambiental.org/en/Povo:Yanomami#The_gold_rush" target="_blank">up to 40,000 wildcat miners invaded the Yanomami homeland</a> looking for gold. An estimated <a href="https://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/yanomami" target="_blank">20% of the resident indigenous population perished</a> from disease and violence over a seven-year period. Today there are about 900,000 indigenous people in Brazil.</p>
A World in Peril<p>At the turn of the millennium, Brazil was generally <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/106/26/10582.full.pdf" target="_blank">considered a good steward of the Amazon</a>.</p><p>About a decade into the 21st century, however, environmental policy <a href="https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cobi.12298" target="_blank">began to weaken</a> to allow <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0179-9?proof=trueMay" target="_blank">more infrastructure development</a> in the Amazon. By 2016, some 34,000 square miles of the Brazilian Amazon had <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320716300386" target="_blank">lost its previously protected status or seen protections reduced</a>.</p><p>Indigenous sovereignty, however, was never called into question — until now. Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro has also <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2020/01/brazils-bolsonaro-creates-amazon-council-and-environmental-police-force/" target="_blank">cut funds for the enforcement of Brazil's strict environmental laws</a>, leading Amazon <a href="https://theconversation.com/amazon-deforestation-already-rising-may-spike-under-bolsonaro-109940" target="_blank">deforestation to spike</a>.</p>
Resistance as Conservation<p>Accelerating deforestation under Bolsonaro has sparked violence in the Amazon.</p><p>Seven indigenous land activists <a href="https://g1.globo.com/natureza/noticia/2019/12/10/mortes-de-liderancas-indigenas-batem-recorde-em-2019-diz-pastoral-da-terra.ghtml" target="_blank">were killed in 2019</a>, according to the Brazilian not-for-profit Pastoral Land Commission, the most in over a decade. Indigenous environmental leaders in the <a href="https://sostenibilidad.semana.com/impacto/articulo/amenazas-a-lideres-indigenas-y-sociales-no-cesan-en-colombia/42919" target="_blank">Colombian</a> and <a href="https://es.mongabay.com/2018/07/amenazas-lideres-indigenas-de-ecuador-medio-ambiente/" target="_blank">Ecuadorian</a> Amazon have also been murdered.</p><p>Such killings mostly go unsolved. But Brazil's Indigenous Peoples Association says one indigenous activist killed in 2019, Paulo Guajajara, was gunned down by illegal loggers in November for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/02/brazilian-forest-guardian-killed-by-illegal-loggers-in-ambush" target="_blank">defending Guajajara territory</a> as part of an armed group called Guardians of the Forest.</p><p>"We are protecting our land and the life on it," Guajajara told <a href="https://fr.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSKBN1XC0GR" target="_blank">Reuters</a> shortly before his murder. "We have to preserve this life for our children's future."</p><p>Indigenous Brazilians have also defended their land in court.</p><p>In 2012, the Munduruku sued to <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/dec/22/amazon-munduruku-indians-brazil-tapajos" target="_blank">stop the construction of mega-dams and waterways</a> in the Tapajós River Valley — projects that would have ended life as they know it. Federal prosecutors agreed, filing in support of the Munduruku and calling for the suspension of the largest dam's environmental license.</p><p><span></span>Under legal pressure, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources in their <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2016/04/amazon-mega-dam-suspended-hope-indigenous-people-biodiversity/" target="_blank">April 2016 decision</a> curtailed the entire infrastructure plan, conserving <a href="https://www.cell.com/one-earth/pdf/S2590-3322(19)30081-8.pdf" target="_blank">7 percent of the Amazon Basin</a>.</p>
Amazon’s Last Hope<p>Not every indigenous Brazilian is a born environmentalist. Many mix traditional livelihoods like hunting, fishing and gathering with <a href="https://pib.socioambiental.org/en/Povo:Xavante#Economy_and_environment" target="_blank">agriculture and ranching</a>.</p><p>Like other <a href="https://theconversation.com/for-cattle-farmers-in-the-brazilian-amazon-money-cant-buy-happiness-85349" target="_blank">farmers who clear forest to plant more crops</a>, indigenous farmers stand to benefit from Bolsonaro's environmental deregulation. The president recently announced his administration would offer <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazl-indigenous/brazils-bolsonaro-offers-credit-for-indigenous-farmers-as-he-pushes-to-open-their-lands-idUSKBN20C2PQ" target="_blank">credit to indigenous soybean farmers who want to expand their operations</a>.</p><p>In Roraima state, the <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/04/we-are-fighting-brazils-indigenous-groups-unite-to-protect-their-land" target="_blank">Raposa Serra do Sol people</a> live on land rich with gold, diamonds, copper and a slew of lesser-known metals that <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-election-china-niobium/hands-off-brazils-niobium-bolsonaro-sees-china-as-threat-to-utopian-vision-idUSKCN1MZ1JN" target="_blank">Bolsonaro regards as strategic to Brazil's metallurgical economy</a>. Royalty payments to Native peoples who open their land to miners could be substantial.</p><p>So far, however, indigenous <a href="https://www.ecosystemmarketplace.com/articles/indigenous-leader-aims-to-build-global-defense-against-brazils-tropical-trump" target="_blank">groups are united in their resistance to federal and corporate</a> interference. They may be the Brazilian Amazon's last hope.</p>
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Pope Francis, in an effort to reignite his influence as a global environmental leader, released an impassioned document Feb. 12 entitled Dear Amazon — a response to the historic Vatican meeting last autumn regarding the fate of the Amazon biome and its indigenous people.
Defending Nature — Again<p><em>Dear Amazon</em> stands as an emphatic complement to <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2016/02/top-vatican-official-climate-change-action-is-a-moral-imperative/" target="_blank"><em>Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home</em></a>, a papal encyclical released in June 2015 with the express purpose of spurring a positive outcome to the United Nations negotiations that resulted in the landmark Paris Agreement that December. An encyclical is a Catholic teaching document of the highest order, possessing "moral authority."</p><p><em>Laudato Si</em> established Francis on the world stage as an ecumenical leader and advocate for environmental protection. He bluntly blamed human activity for global warming and castigated rampant consumerism and unbridled capitalism as hastening the destruction of the earth.</p><p>Myriad faith communities around the globe were inspired to organize and act on the pope's urgings. However, the controversial manifesto met with <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2015/08/popes-environmental-encyclical-arrives-in-peru-to-mixed-reviews/" target="_blank">mixed reviews</a> in Latin America where some see conservation as a hindrance to economic growth and the relief of the poor in developing nations. Vatican officials have since touted climate action as a "<a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2016/02/top-vatican-official-climate-change-action-is-a-moral-imperative/" target="_blank">moral imperative</a>."</p><p>The message of<em> Dear Amazon</em> seems even more urgent than the 2015 encyclical<em>, </em>coming in response to the rapidly worsening Amazon emergency: "We are water, air, earth and life of the environment created by God," Francis writes. "For this reason, we demand an end to the mistreatment and destruction of mother Earth. The land has blood, and it is bleeding; the multinationals have cut the veins of our mother Earth."</p><p><em>Laudauto Si </em>was released when the progressive pope was at the height of global popularity, and it was heralded and cited for months by international media. But the urgent call of <em>Dear Amazon</em> has so far been largely ignored. Mainstream media accounts in the past week instead focused almost exclusively on Francis' decision to not allow the marriage of priests serving in the Amazon as a way of boosting their dramatically diminished numbers.</p><p><a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/12/world/europe/pope-married-priests.html?searchResultPosition=1" target="_blank">The New York Times</a> — which like other accounts stressed the Catholic church's progressive and conservative political divide — went so far as to report that "his closest advisers have acknowledged that the pope's impact has waned on the global stage, especially on core issues like immigration and the environment."</p>
People of Faith Respond<p>Francis won't likely be standing down without a fight. He calls on Latin American governments to enforce their environmental protection laws, return land rights to indigenous peoples, and recognize that Amazonian rainforests are more than an economic resource to be monetized for "extraction, energy, timber and other industries that destroy and pollute."</p><p>"The equilibrium of our planet depends on the health of the Amazon region," Francis writes. "Together with the biome of the Congo and Borneo, it contains a dazzling diversity of woodlands on which rain cycles, climate balance and a great variety of living beings also depend."</p><p>Faith leaders contacted by Mongabay looked past Vatican politics and cheered the pope's message in <em>Dear Amazon, </em>saying that it is invigorating their conservation work and strategies.</p><p>"Protecting rainforests is fundamentally an ethical issue, where care for creation and the realization of social justice for indigenous peoples and forest communities are part of one moral fabric," said Joe Corcoran, the UN project manager for the <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2019/09/interfaith-leaders-step-up-to-protect-the-worlds-sacred-rainforests/" target="_blank">Interfaith Rainforest Initiative</a> (IRI), an NGO which lobbies for governmental climate action in six rainforest countries.</p><p>"Through IRI, we are seeing that not only is the leadership of Pope Francis rallying Catholics to act, but [it is] also inspiring religious leaders from other faiths to protect rainforests around the world," Corcoran said.</p>
Seeing the Amazon gravely at risk, the Vatican has called on governments and the people of the world to protect the world's largest remaining rainforest. Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay<p>Laura Vargas leads IRI's <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2019/12/cop25-laura-vargas-inspires-with-power-of-faith-in-defense-of-forests/" target="_blank">initiatives in Peru</a>: "I believe <em>Dear Amazon</em> marks a turning point for the whole life of the church in the Amazon and beyond its borders. If we believe everything is interconnected, we realize that what happens to the largest tropical forest in the world affects the entire planet."</p><p>Meanwhile, at London-based Christian Aid, a global environmental activism organization, spokesman Joe Ware said, "The pope remains one of the most popular and loved pope's with significant influence not just over one billion Catholics, but of many others, too."</p><p>Ware stressed that 2020 is a crucial year, the year the Paris Agreement <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank">goes into force</a>. The agreement remains dangerously <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2019/12/cop25-self-serving-g20-spites-youth-humanity-world-at-climate-talks/" target="_blank">incomplete</a> as leaders of the industrialized world continue dragging their feet to establish aggressive carbon emission-reduction policies, even as time runs short to dramatically begin decarbonizing the global economy — the UN itself <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/" target="_blank">warned</a> in 2018 that the world's nations have just 12 years to act to avoid climate catastrophe.</p><p>"It's vital," Ware said, "that we have the voice of the Catholic Church and people of faith around the world pushing political leaders this year to make the boldest decisions possible."</p>
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The UK government is looking to take charge of a major crackdown on the illegal and largely unregulated plundering of forests in developing nations. The UK plans to form a coalition of developing countries to combat the practice as part of its duties as host of the UN's COP26 climate summit in November, as The Guardian reported.
By Jan Rocha
President Jair Bolsonaro pressed forward with a "dream" initiative sending a bill to the Brazilian Congress on Wednesday that would open indigenous reserves in the Amazon and elsewhere to development, including commercial mining, oil and gas exploration, cattle ranching and agribusiness, new hydroelectric dam projects, and tourism — projects that have been legally blocked under the country's 1988 Constitution.
A map showing indigenous reserves and conservation units in the Amazon, as well as deforestation. Mauricio Torres / Mongabay<p>Onyx Lorenzoni, Bolsonaro's chief of staff, praised the bill, claiming it was a "Lei Aurea" for indigenous people — a reference to the 1888 royal decree which freed the slaves in Brazil. From the government's point of view, the legislation is freeing indigenous people, allowing their lands to be invaded by <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/mining" rel="noopener noreferrer">mining</a>, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/oil-and-gas" rel="noopener noreferrer">oil and gas</a> companies; <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/cattle" rel="noopener noreferrer">cattle</a> ranchers; soy farmers and dam builders, while compensating indigenous communities monetarily.</p><p>Under the Brazilian constitution, demarcated indigenous territories belong to the state, and are for the permanent possession and exclusive use of the indigenous people who have always lived there. Only they can decide what activities are allowed on their lands.</p><p>Bolsonaro's new law is therefore an attempt to override the Constitution, say legal experts. It is almost certain to be greatly modified in Congress, if it passes at all. But, say analysts, the message contained in the bill — that indigenous lands are up for grabs — is what matters.</p><p>Since Bolsonaro's election, conflicts between ruralists and indigenous people have soared. The latest report from CIMI, the Indigenous Missionary Council, shows a steady growth in the number of invasions of indigenous areas, up from 111 in 2018 to 160 in 2019; indigenous leaders say Bolsonaro's speeches and comments have contributed to the increase. <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2020/01/five-murdered-in-2020-brazilian-amazon-land-conflicts-adding-to-2019-surge/" target="_blank">Five murders</a> due to indigenous and traditional land conflicts occurred in the first weeks of 2020.</p>
Uncontacted indigenous group in the Brazilian state of Acre. Gleilson Miranda / Governo do Acre / Mongabay
Uncontacted Indigenous Groups at Risk<p>The new bill as written would allow economic projects even in areas where there are known to be uncontacted Indians. The existence of 28 such groups in the Amazon region has been confirmed, out of 115 believed to exist.</p><p>But the bill isn't the only potential threat to uncontacted tribes. The day before Bolsonaro announced his legislation, FUNAI appointed an evangelical preacher and agency outsider to head the Department for Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples (CGIIRC). To accomplish this, FUNAI had to revoke its own long-established rule that only a qualified staff member could be chosen to head such a sensitive bureau.</p><p>The new head, Ricardo Lopes Dias, has <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/05/brazil-indigenous-tribes-missionary-agency-ricardo-lopes-dias-christianity-disease" target="_blank">strong views</a> regarding the conversion of indigenous people to Christianity. He is a former missionary for the controversial New Tribes Mission, a Florida-based evangelical organization, and worked from 1997 to 2007 in the Vale do Javari indigenous reserve, in Amazonas state. There, according to Matsés indigenous leaders — who protested his presence — he "manipulated part of the Matsés population to found a new village" where an evangelical church would be built. The New Tribes Mission has been accused of causing death and disease among the tribes it worked with in the 1970s, subjecting them to enforced conversion to evangelical Christianity. Lopes Dias has a degree in anthropology.</p><p>Isolated or uncontacted indigenous peoples are usually survivors of larger groups which were decimated by disease or violence when the military dictatorship (ruling from 1964-1985) forced roads through ancestral lands in the Amazon during the 1960s and 70s. In some cases up to 90 percent of local populations died. This led FUNAIi, in the 1980s, after the dictatorship ended, to introduce a policy of non-contact, designating a "no go" zone protecting the survivors, who became known as "isolated Indians."</p>
Evidence photo of Jair Bolsonaro upon his 2012 arrest for illegal fishing in a conservation area; he never paid the fine and after becoming president had the IBAMA employee who arrested him sacked. IBAMA / Mongabay
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"We see ourselves not as an owner of wild rice but a symbiotic partner and a parallel entity from the Creator," says Frank Bibeau, a lawyer from the Anishinaabe indigenous group in the U.S. and Canada.
Indigenous Approaches Written Into Law<p>"Conventional environmental laws are really about regulating how we use nature," says Mari Margil of CELDF. "The consequences of that have been so devastating that people in different parts of the world are saying we need to make a fundamental shift in our relationship with nature."</p><p>With the idea that indigenous peoples are the most reliable custodians of our planet now repeated by politicians and environmental NGOs alike, giving nature rights suggests a way their approaches might be adopted by broader society.</p><p>It was in this spirit that Ecuador became the first country to enshrine the rights of nature — personified as Pachamama, the Andean earth goddess — in its constitution, in 2008.</p><p><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Bolivia">Bolivia</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Uganda" rel="noopener noreferrer">Uganda</a> have since enshrined the rights of nature in their constitutions, and <a href="https://celdf.org/2019/10/media-release-rights-of-nature-constitutional-amendment-introduced-in-swedens-parliament/" target="_blank">an amendment</a> was recently proposed for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Sweden" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sweden</a> to do the same.</p>
A Healthier Relationship With Nature?<p>Asserting that nature has intrinsic rights isn't just a legal tool to prosecute polluters. It also challenges the "ecosystem services" approach to environmental protection that costs up the economic value of clean air, water and biodiversity — and even the concept of conservation areas.</p><p>As a national park, land surrounding the Whanganui River in New Zealand was off limits to the Iwi Maori tribe who had hunted and fished there sustainably for generations. In 2017, the dispute was resolved by making the river a person in its own right, owned by neither the state nor the tribe.</p><p>Maori law professor Jacinta Ruru sees it as a major breakthrough that New Zealand law now reflects the relationship the country's indigenous people have with the environment — one that sees no division between what's good for people and the planet.</p><p>"My tribe — we'll talk about your veins in your arms as being like the riverways of the land," explains Ruru. "So you're seeing the health and wellbeing of who you are as a person, your health, your own happiness, as entirely connected with the health and wellbeing of the environment around us."</p>
Strategic Compromise<p>Ruru says it's too soon to judge the ecological impact of the Whanganui River's change of status. And it remains to be seen if the Rights of Manoomin will be any match for the interests invested in the pipeline.</p><p>In Ecuador's case, the new constitution has been used to block plantations and road-building that threatened forest, but it hasn't proved enough to transform an entire system geared toward economic development; cases brought by indigenous activists have ended in Pachamama's rights being trumped by those of <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55914fd1e4b01fb0b851a814/t/5748568c8259b5e5a34ae6bf/1464358541319/Kauffman++Martin+16+Testing+Ecuadors+RoN+Laws.pdf" target="_blank">businesses</a>.</p><p>Critics also <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2514848618763807" target="_blank">point out</a> that making rivers and forests honorary people owes less to any indigenous deification of nature than to the Western rights discourse.</p><p>"There is a strategic relationship between indigenous communities and the rights of nature," says Mihnea Tanasescu, a political scientist who authored a book on the subject in Ecuador, "but there is not necessarily an intrinsic philosophical affinity, because rights are a very Western legal category."</p>
Conversation-Changer<p>Last year, one such case made international headlines. Residents of Toledo, a city on the shores of heavily polluted Lake Erie in the U.S. state of Ohio, voted to give the lake rights. A local farm responded by filing a lawsuit claiming this violated the rights of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/agribusiness" rel="noopener noreferrer">agribusinesses</a>. </p><p>Since the bill was more or less quashed by Ohio state legislature, activists are fighting to revive it from legal limbo. But if nothing else, their struggle has drawn attention to the priorities of a legal system that treats nature as property but corporations as legal persons.</p><p>"Often people just don't think about these invisible systems that govern our world," Maloney says. "So as a starting point — and a conversation- and discourse-changer — the rights of nature is very powerful."</p>
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