Could the Coronavirus Pandemic have been Avoided if the World Listened to Indigenous Leaders?

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Climate Change

William Clark Enoch of Queensland. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who comprise only 2.5 percent of Australia’s nearly 24 million population, are part of the oldest continuing culture in the world. At a Covering Climate Now panel in New York on Friday, indigenous leaders reiterated the need for the world to listen to them in addressing climate concerns. Credit: Neena Bhandari/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 19 2020 (IPS) Mina Setra remembers the story clearly. As a Dayak Pompakng indigenous person from Indonesia, when  visitors from the city who came into her community; brought bottled water with them because they were worried about the water not being suitable for drinking. 

Setra, who is the deputy secretary-general of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), recalls one of the elders telling the visitors, “This is the problem of you city people: You eat and drink all the dead things. Like the water that is already in a bottle? It is dead water. The vegetables that you buy from the freezer in the supermarket, they’re all dead plants.”

The anecdote sums up a much bigger conversation that is relevant today: how climate change is linked to coronavirus, and why it’s important to listen to indigenous leaders on the matter.

Setra shared the story with IPS when asked about links between climate change and coronavirus, during a panel talk by Covering Climate Now in New York on Friday, where indigenous leaders reiterated the need for the world to listen to them in addressing climate concerns — and reminding them how climate change can lead to or exacerbate a global health crisis as grave as the current virus. 

The talk took place as global communities scrambled to take effective measures against the deadly virus, and just as the U.S. announced a global emergency while struggling to contain its coronavirus cases. More than two months since the world became aware of coronavirus — and increasingly learned of its alarming implicants — the pandemic has globally claimed 8,810 lives, with more than 218,800, cases. 

While global conversations have mainly focused on the issue of death rate, or the racism attached to the virus, or different countries’ isolation methods (or lack thereof), little has been said about the link to climate change.

This remains a much bigger conversation that indigenous leaders want people to be aware of: how climate change can exacerbate the dangers of something like the coronavirus, and why the world should’ve been listening to indigenous leaders to avoid such a catastrophic spread.  While many believe that coronavirus started with a bat, experts argue it’s not so black and white. A February report established what the leaders discussed at the talk: how deforestation can lead to a loss of habitat for many wild animals and species. As a result, they move to habitat that brings them to closer proximity to humans which can lead to repeated contact between them.  

“The inequilibrium of our planet is not just about climate change, but it’s also about the global economy,” Levi Sucre Romero, a member of the BriBri indigenous community from Costa Rica, told IPS at the panel talk. “So coronavirus is now telling the world what we have been saying for thousands of years: that if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, that we will face this and worse future threats.”

Romero, a coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, further highlighted a United Nations’ statement for why it’s important for global communities to work with indigenous leaders and learn from their knowledge. United Nations for Indigenous Peoples did not respond to the IPS’ request for comments. 

While wild animals and species are forced to find a home in close proximity to humans as a result of deforestation, another crucial concern is the treatment of animals by people from commercial hubs and cities that can act as a catalyst for such a global crisis.

“Our animals are not contaminated by themselves. They get contaminated by people,” Tuxá said in response to IPS’ question about the link between coronavirus and climate change. “And the proof is that these viruses start in the commercial centres of the world. There is a direct correlation between this and coronavirus and other pandemics that are to come.”

Tuxá added the next pandemic’s cure can be found in the diversity of indigenous peoples’ lands. 

“That’s why it’s really important to demarcate and recognise our lands, to protect our lands and our biodiversity because future life depends on it,” he said.

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Indigenous Rights Approach a Solution to Climate Change Crisis

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Indigenous Rights

The Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) was held in Bonn, Germany and focused on how to give land rights the visibility needed to showcase that a rights approach, particularly when it comes to indigenous people, is a solution to the climate change crisis. Courtesy: Pilar Valbuena/GLF

Jun 29 2019 (IPS) – The Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) was held in Bonn, Germany to rally behind a new approach to achieving a future that is more inclusive and sustainable than the present – through the establishment of secure and proper rights for all.


On Jun. 22 and 23, experts, political leaders, NGOs and indigenous peoples and communities gathered to deliberate on a methodology that emphasises rights for indigenous peoples and local communities in the management and perseveration of landscapes. The forum took place alongside the  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Bonn Climate Change Conference.

The forum focused giving land rights the visibility needed to showcase that a rights approach is a solution to the climate change crisis, and to develop a ‘gold standard’ for rights.

Indigenous peoples, local communities, women and youth, are believed to be the world’s most important environmental stewards but they are also among the most threatened and criminalised groups with little access to rights.

“We’re defending the world, for every single one of us,” said Geovaldis Gonzalez Jimenez, an indigenous peasant leader from Montes de María, Colombia.

But industries such as fossil fuels, large-scale agriculture, mining and others are not only endangering landscapes but also the lives of the people therein.

Already this year, said Gonzalez, his region witnessed 135 murders, adding that the day before the start of the GLF a local leader was killed in front of a 9-year-old boy.

According to the United Nations, the land belonging to the 350 million indigenous peoples across the globe is one of the most powerful shields against climate change as it holds 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity and sequesters nearly 300 billion metric tons of carbon

It is for this reason that amid the urgency to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under pressure from the climate threat, dialogues about the global future have begun to wake up to the fact that indigenous peoples’ relationships with the natural world are not only crucial to preserve for their own sakes, but for everyone’s.

The drafting of the document of rights was led by Indigenous Peoples Major Group (IPMG) for Sustainable Development and the Rights and Resources Initiative in the months leading up to the GLF.

Wider discussions and workshops over the two days served as a consultation on the draft (which is expected to be finalised by the end of the year) as a concrete guide for organisations, institutions, governments and the private sector on how to apply different principles of rights. This includes the rights to free, prior and informed consent; gender equality; respect to cultural heritage; and education.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Vicky Tauli-Corpuz said lands managed by indigenous peoples with secure rights have lower deforestation rates, higher biodiversity levels and higher carbon storage than lands in government-protected areas.

But Diel Mochire Mwenge, who leads the Initiative Programme for the Development of the Pygme in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the largest indigenous forest communities in Central Africa, said he has witnessed more than one million people being evicted from the national parkland where they have long lived. He explained that they had not been given benefits from the ecotourism industries brought in to replace them and were left struggling to find new income sources.

“Our identity is being threatened, and we need to avoid being completely eradicated,” said Mwenge.

In Jharkhand, India, activist Gladson Dungdung, whose parents were murdered in 1990 for attending a court case over a local land dispute, said an amendment to India’s Forest Rights Act currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court could see 7.5 million indigenous peoples evicted from their native forest landscapes. The act can impact a further 90 million people who depend on these forests’ resources for their survival, he said.

The amendment, Dungdung said, would also give absolute power to the national forest guard; if a guard were to see someone using the forest for hunting or timber collection, they could legally shoot the person on-sight.

“Indigenous peoples are right on the frontline of the very real and dangerous fight for the world’s forests,” said actor and indigenous rights activist Alec Baldwin in a video address.

“Granted that indigenous peoples are the superheroes of the environmental movement,” Jennifer Morris, president of Conservation International wondered why they are not heard until they become victims. “Why do we not hear about these leaders until they’ve become martyrs for this cause?”

The examples of intimidation, criminalisation, eviction and hardship shared throughout the first day clearly showcased what indigenous peoples and local communities go through to preserve the forests or ‘lungs of the earth’.

The rights approach, according to conveners of the GLF, aims to strengthen respect, recognition and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities as stewards and bearers of solutions to landscape restoration, conservation, and sustainable use. It also aims to end persecution of land and environment defenders; build partnerships to enhance engagement and support for rights-based approaches to sustainable landscapes across scales and sectors; and, scale up efforts to legally recognise and secure collective land and resource rights across landscapes.

“By implementing a gold standard, we can both uphold and protect human rights and develop conservation, restoration and sustainable development initiatives that embrace the key role Indigenous peoples and local communities are already playing to protect our planet,” said Joan Carling, co-convener of IPMG.

IPMG recognises that indigenous and local communities are bearers of rights and solutions to common challenges.

“This will enable the partnership that we need to pave the way for a more sustainable, equitable and just future,” added Carling.

And the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Director General, Robert Nasi, said when rights of local communities and indigenous peoples are recognised, there are significant benefits for the fight against climate change and environmental degradation.

“Whoever controls the rights over these landscapes has a very important part to play in fighting climate change,” he said.

In the climate and development arenas, the most current alarm being sounded is for rights–securing the land rights and freedoms of indigenous peoples, local communities and the marginalised members therein.

How can these custodians of a quarter of the world’s terrestrial surface be expected to care for their traditional lands if the lands don’t, in fact, belong to them? Or, worse, if they’re criminalised and endangered for doing so?

The basic principles of a ‘gold standard’ already exist, such as free, prior and informed consent, according to Alain Frechette of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). What has been lacking, he said, is the application of principles that could be boosted by high-level statements that could “spur a race to the top”.