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Peru’s indigenous people call for protections against environmental threats

December 11, 2014 at 6:35 PM EST
As delegates from around the world gather in Lima, Peru, to work on a framework on climate change, thousands of Peruvians flocked to the capital to demand better protection for their lands and cultures. As part of our Culture at Risk series, Jeffrey Brown reports from Lima on the struggle to balance the protection of remote indigenous communities with industry and growth.
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GWEN IFILL: International delegates have gathered for climate change talks in Lima, Peru, this week, hoping to build the framework for a plan to cut the world’s heat-trapping gas emissions.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived there today to help with that new accord. But, for many Peruvians, the focus is local, as mining and timber operations encroach into once pristine areas inhabited by indigenous tribes.

Jeffrey Brown is in Lima, and has this report, part of his series Culture at Risk.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were dancers and drummers, banners and chants, traditional clothing of all kinds, a march of thousands, many of them tribal people, that shut down part of downtown Lima for several hours, demanding better protection of their lands and their cultures. They came from near and far, some very far.

This group from the Ucayali region in Eastern Peru had traveled for several days, by boat, plane, and bus, to get here from their remote homes.

Grimaldo Villacorta heads the group.

GRIMALDO VILLACORTA (through interpreter): For us, as an indigenous population, it’s important to be here, because we want to stop climate change. We used to have regular seasons, summer and winter, during which we planted our seeds. But now, with the climate changing, we can work the land, but sometimes we cannot plant seeds. There is no production.

JEFFREY BROWN: This demonstration was set up as a kind of counterpoint to the official climate talks going on across town. The idea is to raise awareness about the increasing and increasingly violent encroachment on tribal lands in Peru and elsewhere around the globe.

Throughout the crowd, portraits of one of the martyrs of this movement, Edwin Chota, a Peruvian environmental activist from the Ashaninka Indian tribe who’d spent years fighting illegal logging on his community’s lands.

In September, Chota and three others from the village of Saweto were shot and killed near the Brazilian border, in the vast Amazon Basin that’s home to about half of Peru’s more than 1,500 indigenous communities, with some 300,000 people. Chota had spoken of threats he received as he fought to gain official title to his lands and keep loggers at bay.

EDWIN CHOTA, Environmental Activist (through interpreter): They are loggers. They have arms. They have everything. And they are never going to pay attention to us. So we need the support of government institutions to protect the region at the border.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chota’s remains were found by a river near his home. Two loggers have been charged with his murder.

That and other incidents led the advocacy group Global Witness to declare Peru one of the world’s most dangerous countries for environmental activists. And by all accounts, illegal logging, mining, and drug trafficking have been on the rise in this area. The World Bank estimates, for example, that some 80 percent of Peru’s timber exports were cut without a permit.

In Lima this week, Patricia Balbuena, the vice culture minister who overseas indigenous relations, said the government is working to resolve land ownership disputes, but that administrations past and present have struggled to ensure legal rights and safety in these distant communities.

PATRICIA BALBUENA, Vice Minister of Intercultural Affairs, Peru (through interpreter): These are remote areas with very little government presence because of geographical barriers. For example, from the capital of Pucallpa region to the community of Saweto, it takes six to eight days by boat.

That is why the most important issue is to assure the government’s presence, not only in terms of a military or police presence, but also in what a government should provide to its indigenous populations: health, education, social services, and security.

JEFFREY BROWN: Encroachment deep into Amazon forests may also be behind scenes like this, as previously isolated or uncontacted tribes come into the open.

Last year, more than 100 members of the Mashco-Piro tribe appeared at a river in Southeast Peru.

Anthropologist Beatriz Huertas studies groups like this who’ve chosen to live apart from civilization. She thinks she knows why more are now making contact.

BEATRIZ HUERTAS, Anthropologist (through interpreter): I think that, first of all, it’s owed to the great pressures on their lands and natural resources, and that those are forcing these isolated peoples to alter their ways and are leading to their displacement.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are more such tribes than you might think. The advocacy group Survival International estimates there are 15 in Peru alone, and at least 100 around the globe.

The highest concentration is here in the Amazon. Citing the threat of contagious disease and other problems that have decimated previously uncontacted tribes, Beatriz Huertas says the government needs to take immediate action.

BEATRIZ HUERTAS (through interpreter): To protect them, it’s necessary to officially recognize their lands and to establish a series of protection mechanisms to guarantee their lives, their health and the right of these populations to decide for themselves what lives they want to live.

JEFFREY BROWN: I asked Vice Minister Balbuena the overarching question, how Peru can foster investment and growth, while also protecting vulnerable people and cultures.

PATRICIA BALBUENA (through interpreter): I think we always feel we need to do more. I think the demands of the indigenous peoples require us to act faster. And we can’t advance a peaceful society if we don’t find a balancing point between growth on the one hand and respect and protection of rights on the other.

JEFFREY BROWN: Achieving a balance has also, of course, been on the minds of attendees at the climate change summit this week in Lima. After years of setbacks and sidesteps, the goal here is for nations to commit, or at least commit to committing, to specific domestic emissions cuts.

The grand hope, a new global treaty to be signed at next year’s meeting in Paris. The effort got a boost last month with an agreement between China and the U.S., the world’s largest economies and polluters, to limit their greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades.

In pavilions open to the public, Peruvians of all ages took in exhibitions that explained the tangible effects of climate change. There, conference attendee Chris Field told me he felt encouraged by what he’d heard so far at the meetings, but that huge challenges remained.

CHRIS FIELD, Carnegie Institution: The big challenge is ambition of mitigation, how much we decrease the emissions of heat-trapping gases, ambition of adaption, how much we invest in helping people cope with the climate changes that can’t be avoided, and how tightly those two things should be connected.

JEFFREY BROWN: And getting — and getting individual countries to actually make commitments.

CHRIS FIELD: Well, what you find is that, kind of constitutionally, there’s a difference between the perspective that the developed countries take, which is really focused on mitigation aspects, and the developing countries, who want to see much more of a interlinkage between investments in decreasing amounts of heat-trapping gases and increasing investments in helping people cope.

JEFFREY BROWN: Case in point, of course, is the host country itself, which faces many long-term environmental threats and, as tribal demonstrators shouted in the streets, immediate, urgent ones that demand answers and actions.

I’m Jeffrey Brown reporting from Lima for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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