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Key to saving Amazon is protecting Indigenous rights, environmentalists say

Ginger Cassady of the Rainforest Action Network said the Bolsonaro government has increased deforestation by dismantling environmental protections, despite its promises.
FILE PHOTO: Second march of indigenous women to protest against Brazil's President Bolsonaro in Brasilia
Brazilian indigenous people take part in the second march of indigenous women to protest against president Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia, Sept. 10, 2021.Adriano Machado / Reuters

BRASILIA — Protecting the native inhabitants of the Amazon and their right to ancestral lands is crucial to saving the rainforest because they are its best guardians, environmental activists said on Monday.

But their rights to protected lands are being undermined by the far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro, they said on a panel at the  Reuters Impact conference on the fate of the Amazon rainforest.

“What we are seeing is an attack on Indigenous people, on their rights, their lives and territories,” said Leila Salazar-Lopez, executive director of Amazon Watch.

Ginger Cassady, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, said the actions of the Bolsonaro government have continued to increase deforestation by dismantling environmental protections despite its promises.

Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has risen sharply since Bolsonaro took office in 2019. Although preliminary data suggest clearing so far this year is little changed from last year, destruction remains at a level not seen in Brazil since 2008. 

Smoke from burning vegetation rises in Brazilian Amazon rainforest in Amazonas state, Brazil, Sept. 8, 2021.Bruno Kelly / Reuters

After years of funding cuts and hiring freezes, Bolsonaro promised to double resources for environmental enforcement to combat illegal deforestation at a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September. 

Both activists urged banks and other investors to respect Indigenous land rights and native communities’ prior consent to projects that impact their lands.

They called on the private sector to stop the expansion of oil concessions in the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest and a vital bulwark against climate change.

Salazar-Lopez said forests were being cut down intentionally to clear land for cattle grazing and soy plantations, while the gutting of the government’s Indigenous affairs agency Funai under Bolsonaro has left Indigenous reservations unprotected and vulnerable to illegal logging and gold miners.

“Indigenous people are the best protectors of the Amazon forest and of biodiversity around our planet ... because they have intrinsic spiritual and cultural connections to the land,” Salazar-Lopez said.

“They have the most to lose and so they will do anything to protect the land, which is everything to them,” she said.

Indigenous territories, which account for about 30 percent of the Amazon, are among the best protected lands in the region, and another 20 percent are protected areas under the care of the federal government.

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