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Indigenous leader: Development efforts in forests must be inclusive, respect rules

Setting clear rules will help Indigenous people safeguard their rights and responsibilities to forests.
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Cándido Mezúa Salazar, Chairman of the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples of Panama: "all the global programs should respect the rights of indigenous peoples."
Cándido Mezúa Salazar, Chairman of the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples of Panama: “all the global programs should respect the rights of indigenous peoples.”

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Latin America - LIMA, Peru—Global agreements on forests and climate change must safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples, said a Latin American indigenous leader who called for setting clear rules over development initiatives that affect the forests they live in.

“At the global level, forests are where indigenous peoples are living,” said Cándido Mezúa Salazar, Chairman of the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples of Panama, speaking on 7 December before an audience of 1,700 people at the Global Landscapes Forum in Lima, Peru. “We’re not saying that we are the owners of all the forests of the world, no. But we do have an influence on them because the forests are part of our lives. And we must respect that. But how can we manage this if we do not have clear rules?”

The Forum, organized by the Center for International Forestry Research on the sidelines of the UN climate talks, brought together climate change negotiators, government ministers, scientists, land-use practitioners and civil society, including community and indigenous representatives.

Mezúa Salazar urged attendees at the Forum to try to see forests from a different perspective.

“[Indigenous people] see the forest from the inside,” he said. “You cannot take me out of this landscape. So the social and environmental responsibility goes much farther than seeing it as a simple tree, a simple forest. Society must be closely related to all these processes. What do we mean by this? That we need to have development of the communities, but development respecting their cultural principles and rules.”

Watch Mezúa Salazar’s speech, above, or read an edited transcript, below.


Transcript of Cándido Mezúa Salazar’s speech: 

We are part of the forest. In this very moment, each one of you, each one of us, is playing a role. The purpose that each one is meeting right now is to convey this message. That’s how we are part of the forest. You are part of this forest, also. And this is one of the first teachings that we receive from our grandparents. In order to see how we are affected by something, we need to be part of the forest. And that’s how we started since we were very little to have some stories to tell to our children on what is going on.

And one of the first teachings that we receive from our grandparents is how water flows. Why does water flow? Why is water cold? Why is water getting warmer at night? And sometimes, they teach us to fish at night, to fish during day time, to be in a cold environment. And when it is hot water, we’re looking to be warmer. All this is part of our teachings on the landscape. But this reality belongs to our communities. Our realities are changing with the reality of society. We see, for example, now I’m here gathered with all of you. All of you who are my brothers and sisters in a reality that we can now say that things have changed. Our relationship inside the communities or in our relationship with the world, with the planet, our Mother Earth, is suffering.

And one of the first messages that we would like to convey that is that we are all fully responsible. But how can we do this when each one of us plays a role? When each member of society plays a role, and we are not able to meet this role. How can we know that each one of us has something to contribute, but still we do not act sufficiently? So therefore it’s time for us to act. Maybe society during the past 20 years has gotten into a dynamic of trying to understand, what is the situation of climate change? And when we are listening, there’s some rules—noble policies. New initiatives are being created, like the REDD initiative, initiative on climate change. Sometimes indigenous peoples and communities do not know about this.

We do not realize that this is going on. But we have our own reality. We know that in our communities things are also changing. And this is affecting us. But when there are some agreements established, global agreements, of course this affects our countries. When there are conventions or bilateral conventions between different programs and countries, these also affect our communities. But, as part of this dynamic, on very few occasions we make clear rules. There are no clear rules to work a relationship between the population and the global rules. So therefore we need to work based on global rules, but these should not affect the rights of the indigenous peoples. That’s one of the messages that we are conveying, almost in all the conferences. How should the roles of each one be properly respected?

Right now we are saying, there is main damage of rights. All the global programs should respect the rights of indigenous peoples. And the main element of life for us, which is the Earth, the land. If there is no land for us, we think that our rights will be breached even [further]. So therefore one of the elements that I see within this climate change scenario, we need to ensure the rights to the land of the indigenous peoples. Why?

One of the main impacts that we see of climate change, and it is evidenced in all the scientific reports, are the forests. We have seen many talks about this. At the global level, forests are where indigenous peoples are living. So therefore we say we have some influence on the forests. We’re not saying that we are the owners of all the forests of the world, no. But we do have an influence on them because the forests are part of our lives. And we must respect that. But how can we manage this if we do not have clear rules? So we need to work setting forth clear rules that will help us to safeguard these rights.

How can we be socially and environmentally responsible with our society?

Cándido Mezúa Salazar

Therefore we are right now looking at a relation in which society, developing countries also have their own dynamic. And we see our friends here, businessmen, they are aware—some of them. But the great majority are not aware of this. But another majority says, yes, we are fully responsible. But they are fully responsible only socially. When they think that if you are bringing some food to an orphan they say, well that’s social responsibility. Okay, that’s true. But compared with this, it looks very nice, it is probably shown all over. It is broadcast on the TVs, the newspapers.

But what happens with the environmental social responsibility? There are very few companies actually that have a responsibility with the environment, with indigenous peoples. So this type of relationship considering climate change is of great importance. It needs to be supported. And this is where we say, Well, I would like that companies like this one should work in our territories. Because we know that they will respect the rules, the laws, the principles, even if this is not written or found in a piece of paper.

So that’s a second message. How can we be socially and environmentally responsible with our society? But despite this within the scheme of landscapes, where we’re saying how we can be socially and environmentally responsible— we’re saying, in order to be so, we should not take into account only the tree, the forests, or the resources, or the environment, the climate. No. We have society as a whole. And here within that, we need to take into account a vision from the indigenous peoples. Where we say that, in order to have this integration, we need to see this holistically. Right now I’m seeing the forest, which all of you are the forest. But I see the landscape from my own perspective, from here to there. But I’m not seeing myself inside the forest as being part of you.

So I would like to see the forest from the inside, and that’s how we indigenous people see the forest. We see the forest from the inside. So I’m part of the landscape. You cannot take me out of this landscape. So the social and environmental responsibility goes much farther than seeing it as a simple tree, a simple forest. Society must be closely related to all these processes. What do we mean by this? That we need to have development of the communities, but development respecting their cultural principles and rules. Not intervening with a different form of development. Which would be the development of what the indigenous people are aspiring to.

I remember when my parents—when I was 8 years old, I remember when all of us are just one person. And do you know what this is? That’s respect for equality. I remember when I was young. Since I was the youngest, I wanted to eat very fast and I wanted to grab the things first. And they say, no, you cannot do this. You need to wait. My older brother, thinking that they had more rights because he was the older—he wanted to grab the food. They also slapped his hand. No, you need to wait. It’s not because you are older or stronger you have more rights than the other ones.

Well, equitable distribution, therefore everybody was eating from the same plate. You can say, well that’s poverty maybe. Because everybody is eating from the same dish. And they say, no, this is being rich. This is wealth. Because we are all eating the same. And sometimes we say also that a party of poor people is a party of rich people. In our culture, we do not [know] what it is, a party. Our party is in the water, in the forest, or playing. But when we get in relation with a different society, we see that there is a piñata. And in a country where there is this piñata and this poor people, they say, people are fighting to see who will grab all the candies that will go out of this piñata. And once this is broken, everybody just—well we see this is like a game.

Indigenous peoples will continue contributing in their society, and we are doing it. But we cannot do it alone

Cándido Mezúa Salazar

But in a party of wealthy people, we do not see this. In a party of wealthy people, we have all the bags are properly separated. Every child has its own bag. But that happens in the parties of wealthy people. Now, what’s my point in this? Because we are seeing that in order to approach this topic of climate change, we’re speaking a lot of billions, trillions. And sometimes we think that this is like the piñata. Because we have to have an equitable distribution therefore. We as the indigenous people, we say, well all of you—we need to meet one responsibility. Even if I’m younger, even if my brother is older, I quickly will distribute. The distribution should be applied to everybody. These are messages that we’d like to convey to everybody.

There is a green farm. It’s the climate. And indigenous peoples, we want to have also our own indigenous territorial climate fund. Where all our rights will be respected, but also that we will have responsibility to take care of what we have already committed ourselves to safeguard and protect the forest.  But how can we manage to do this if there is not an equitable distribution? What are we proposing therefore? In order to be ready to break this piñata … in the party for everybody, not for the wealthy or the people. But to see jointly how we can manage this responsibility.

Indigenous peoples maybe are not prepared to receive this. Nor the states, nor the governments are prepared. And we are therefore proposing that in this convention of the conference of the parties, at least in this year in 2014, an agreement must be established that will enable to prepare ourselves to be able to properly cope on the way we’re going to breaking this piñata. Because we need to be prepared for that. But not in the way we are doing it right now, with no control, no order. We need to have order. We do have a role to play and we’re going to fulfill our role. We are the true guardians of the planet. That’s what we say of us.

Civil society will support, but sometimes it’s trying to be the main actors—who will do more? And that which is my real responsibility. The state, in looking and trying to always be good standing in the eyes of the global society, but also they should be seen with good eyes also by the most needy ones. There are many things that sometimes we see with great clarity, but with a more diverse clarity. Because how many countries, how many societies? We need to look for a good mechanism so that we can understand each other. Global mechanisms help that, but these are not enough.

The global rules are for that, but they are not enough to complete. I would like to leave a very clear message to all of you. Indigenous peoples will continue contributing in their society, and we are doing it. But we cannot do it alone. We need the support of the states, of the society, of the business community, of those responsible, of each one of the governments. So that’s why we ask the governments must understand our own rights and relations with our Mother Earth. That’s all I want to ask. Thank you very much.

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