For the 45 million indigenous people of Latin America, their link with the environment goes beyond its potential use as a resource to a spiritual and cultural connection. Seeing a river dying because of drought or pollution is like losing a family member.
This is how Ketty Marcelo, from the Yanesha-Asáninka people, in the central jungle of the Peruvian Amazon, puts it. She has seen the Perené River that she grew up with die and, in recent years, she has been the voice of indigenous women facing climate change and the environment at the COP summits in Lima, Paris, Marrakech and Bonn. She also chairs the National Organisation of Indigenous Andean and Amazonian Women of Peru (ONAMIAP), which highlights the contributions of these women in the global fight against climate change.
Bolivia’s lagoons are disappearing. The glaciers in the Peruvian mountain range are melting: in the last 40 years they have lost 42.64 per cent of their surface area (compared to 1970). El Niño, an increasingly frequent extreme weather phenomenon, caused floods in 2017 and, in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, the victims were numbered in their thousands.
Harvey, Irma and Maria in a single year: there are more and more hurricanes in the Atlantic. The increase in temperature is causing health risks in Central America, with the Zika virus and Dengue disease becoming more widespread. Deforestation in the Amazon causes the loss of forests and biodiversity. These are some of the risks that the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) highlights, warning that the economic cost of the phenomenon is hard to predict.
Maybe that is why the region is making progress in policy reform, bringing in new laws against climate change. Mexico was a pioneer in 2012, although back in 2010 Bolivia approved the Mother Earth Law in order to “live in harmony” with nature. Brazil, for its part, has been working on national strategies since 2009.
Mexico’s law was followed by Guatemala in 2013, Honduras in 2014 and, recently, Peru. Other countries in the region have been strengthening policies on mitigation, adaptation, and risk and disaster management.
Latin America is the region with the second lowest greenhouse gas emissions in the world (11.7 per cent), according to a United Nations report, but it is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, since the damage caused by extreme climatic events are a new challenge to its development.
The new climate economy
Manuel Pulgar Vidal, international head of climate change and energy at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), answers the phone from Colombia, where the nature conservation organisation held its annual conference in early May, attended by the country’s then president Juan Manuel Santos.
The laws against climate change are positive, says Pulgar Vidal, but not enough: “The economic and productive sectors require very specific actions to reduce emissions and in the new climate economy they cannot be separated from environmental considerations.”
There are regional initiatives that are already setting an example. Electric vehicles in Ecuadorian cities. Quito as one of the world’s sustainable cities. Chile, Colombia and Mexico putting a price on coal. Colombia, which does not have a framework law, but does have climate action rules for the reduction of plastic bags, and, for example, has created the Colombia Legacy fund – which promotes the sustainability of ecosystems and human life, and the conservation and extension of protected areas, surpassing the Aichi global goal of 10 per cent in marine areas.
“Few recognise the leadership of Latin America in the fight against climate change. The road to the Paris Agreement went via Mexico recovering the process, after the loss of optimism in Copenhagen in 2009; and Peru, together with France, promoted the agreement and managed to involve non-state actors,” says Pulgar Vidal, who was also Peru’s Environment Minister.
This expert highlights the role of non-governmental actors in strengthening the climate agenda: “In the US, an equivalent initiative has been launched, We Are Still In, which has allowed the country, notwithstanding Trump’s decisions, to continue making progress on climate action.”
Civil society is key to climate change. Elisa Hernández has toured Latin America “wearing her sustainable development and gender glasses”. She is an environment expert and has worked for international organisations, governmental and local associations, studying the role of indigenous women, the right to water and the resilience of communities in the face of climate change.
She says that “beyond the policies of each country, it is the people of Latin America who are carrying out very interesting social initiatives such as the Pan-Amazonian meeting or the Court of Nature, actions to lead a change of model in the region”. And she highlights that one of the biggest challenges is “to ensure the participation of people in politics. Emphasising traditional practices and respecting the worldview of communities is fundamental.”
One important thing she has learnt from her experience is that communities tend to oppose very visibly development models that they have no part in. “We don’t know what the climate change scenarios are with any precision. It will certainly create more inequality and this could exacerbate conflict at different levels.”
The global Environmental Justice Atlas includes three countries in the region in its global list of environmental conflicts: Colombia, Brazil and Peru. The conflicts, mostly caused by mining, are a reality that organisations such as Amnesty International have already reported on. Two of its recently published reports on Peru, A Toxic State and A Recipe for Criminalization, point to a phenomenon that is on the rise: the people of the Andes and the Amazon are severely affected by toxic metals from extractive industries while environmental activists are stigmatised and in danger.
Marina Navarro, director of Amnesty International Peru, says that Latin America is the region with the highest number of murders of environmental activists: “2017 was the worst year in the last decade. There is an excessive use of force. When rights activists raise their voices, they are accused of going against progress and the criminal system is used to criminalise them. We haven’t seen any authority come out to defend them and there is no protection policy.”
Although organisations in Peru have welcomed the climate change law, Navarro believes that “ratifying the LAC Principle 10 would be a great step forward”. This principle, which recognises that the participation of “all interested citizens” is the best way “to deal with environmental issues”, is the premise of the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, the three pillars for environmental management and sustainable development, approved last March.
Women are the most affected by extractivism
Why does a country that approves and leads climate action promote, in parallel, development based on extractivism – an option that undermines the rights of the people? “It’s a schizophrenic government.”
This was the response of Beatriz Salazar, coordinator of the Peru Environment and Climate Group, which brings together nearly 100 civil society organisations that have promoted the law against climate change: “In Peru, there is a weakening of environmental standards and standards are approved that benefit investments to the detriment of rights.”
Rocío Silva Santisteban, a Peruvian journalist who has investigated how extractive activities affect women in Latin America, says that “women activists are heroines” because they are almost alone in facing up to resistance that undermines all their rights. In Women and Ecoterritorial Conflicts she concludes that these conflicts are the great problem of the 21st century in the region and that the extractivist development model is unsustainable in the long term and, above all, in the face of climate change.
Marcelo has swapped her Perené River for the Rimac River in Lima. Every morning she greets it, although water levels are low and the river is dirty. This spokesperson for indigenous women says she will continue to work for the recognition of contributions of Andean-Amazonian women: “We are already adapting to climate change, we work together in productive initiatives such as fish farms, we promote handicrafts, tourist corridors and we want to make the indigenous economy visible.” This economy, based on distribution and ancestral knowledge about ecology, the environment and culture, enables them to live in harmony with nature.