Drones v. Deforestation: The Amazon’s Indigenous Communities Fight Back

“Amazonia por Vida,” printed in large, bold green letters, hung in front of a table at the C.O.I.C.A. conference in Ecuador this past March. (C.O.I.C.A. is the Co-ordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin, and the short phrase written on the banner translates to “Amazon for Life” in Spanish.) Underneath it read “No to mining, no to extraction.” Indigenous leaders stood in a line behind the table, having traveled from nine different countries in order to demand their governments take action to protect the Amazon Rainforest and the wildlife and sacred lands within it.

Ecuador has the highest rate of deforestation of any country in the entire Western Hemisphere. From the 1990’s up until 2018, an estimated 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of land have been deforested in Ecuador. Just between 2016 to 2018, a staggering 116,857 ha (288,760 acres) of rainforest were deforested, according to Mongabay News. The main drivers in this deforestation are the mining of resources, including gold and other valuable minerals, in the Amazon, as well as the extraction of oil deposits. As deforestation has escalated, there has been significant outcry and push back from both the scientific community and the Indigenous communities in the region.

As the Amazon rainforest is cut down, thousands of invaluable species living there are put at severe risk of endangerment and, ultimately, extinction. The Amazon is home to 30% of the world’s species, making it an ecological epicenter with the highest number of animal and plant species out of any terrestrial ecosystem in the world. According to the Amazon Aid Foundation, an estimated 100,000 species are lost to extinction in tropical rainforests globally each year. This loss of biodiversity due to habitat degradation is already having catastrophic effects, ranging from ecosystem collapse to worsening climate change and the loss of invaluable resources relating to medicine.

Beyond the loss of biodiversity, the destruction of millions of trees deprives the region of moisture which is normally emitted from the trees through transpiration. The lack of moisture – and thus, rain – in the region leads to rising rates of wildfires, drought, dangerous heat, and accelerated climate change with increased CO2 levels. On top of this, a lack of roots to maintain topsoil leads to worsening soil erosion and degradation. Finally, pollution from mining practices and other machinery infiltrates the groundwater and rivers which many animals, and many people, rely on and call home. Pollution is only again worsened by the loss of trees, which naturally filter pollutants.

Unfortunately, deforestation in Ecuador and the Amazon in general is by no means a new phenomenon. Deforesting the Ecuadorian region of the Amazon can be traced back to the Incan Empire’s expansion in the 1400’s. With the arrival of the Spanish, colonization and slavery only accelerated the deforestation’s rate. The new forms of livestock and cattle Spain brought contributed to this, as well as making already-cleared areas impossible to regrow, as their constant foot traffic deteriorated the soil quality even further. Ecuador’s farming and socioeconomic structure did not change in the post-colonial era. According to the Tropical Forest Research Center, feudalism was not truly ended in the country until the Agrarian Reform laws of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Government response to deforestation and pollution in Ecuador has been historically weak or simply non-existent. The country formed its Ministry of Environment, which is in charge of implementing environmental legislation and regulations, in 1996. At the time, Ecuador had one of Latin America’s most advanced sets of environmental policies. However, the ministry was severely underfunded and therefore lacked the power to enforce many of its laws. This has led to powerful domestic and international companies blatantly carrying out illegal operations with little repercussion, including the American company Texaco, which the B.B.C. reports spilled 18 billion gallons of oil in Ecuador between 1964 to 1992. Texaco was able to evade both the cleanup and any major backlash when the Ecuadorian government signed a bill in 1998 absolving the company of any further responsibility for the damage. Meanwhile Indigenous communities in the areas of the spills suffered insurmountably and were forced to file lawsuits in U.S. courts. Their own government would not stand up against the corporation.

Texaco is only one example of the hundreds of companies who have exploited the Amazon Rainforest and taken advantage of weak or uncaring local governments. The history of U.S. companies operating in South America has been especially unforgivable and continues today as a form of post-colonial exploitation. Brazil faces tremendous danger for its Amazon rainforest. U.S. companies have been poised and waiting for the radically conservative Bolsonaro administration to pass two separate bills allowing mining and prospecting in historically protected Indigenous lands, according to UNDark.

As mounting climate change worsens, vampiric corporations run rampant, and weak governments refuse to take action, Indigenous groups have taken matters into their own hands. Just this May, Indigenous activists Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narváez, from the Cofán community in Ecuador, received the international Goldman Prize recognizing grassroots activism for their work in combating mining companies in their ancestral lands using drones. After noticing heavy machinery and other signs of mining in their lands in 2017, Lucitante and Narváez’s 25-member group, La Guardia, began documenting and collecting photo evidence of the mining taking place.

Lucitante and Narváez discovered that the state of Ecuador had issued 20 mining licenses to various companies to mine Cofán land without Cofán approval. 32 more licenses were still pending approval by the state. The evidence La Guardia gathered ended up critical in securing a legal victory, which not only resulted in the protection of what the B.B.C. estimates at 79,000 acres of rainforest, but also proves that the people of Ecuador have the power to fight back against both their government’s inaction and the powerful companies exploiting them.

An unintended additional outcome of this operation was the empowerment of local women who became involved in the effort. Narváez recounts her community’s intense pushback and skepticism when she first said that she wanted to join La Guardia and its efforts; her community does not traditionally allow women to take part in activities outside of the home. However, she was eventually able to convince the doubters and was allowed to join as a founding member, finding her own empowerment as well as inspiring several other women to join the group with her. La Guardia now includes six women, including Narváez.

On the back of this momentous legal victory, C.O.I.C.A. held a conference involving the leaders of nine different groups. This conference served to highlight the progress from La Guardia’s court ruling, but also to demand that the momentum keep building. One step forward is not enough in a critical, and quickly escalating, battle with time.

“If we don’t stop [extractive expansion], practically the entire Amazon basin will be a desert,” Marlon Vargas, leader of the Ecuadorian Indigenous organization Confeniae, told Reuters, stressing that the ruling is useless if the government does not take action on it.

Ecuador, and every other Amazonian country, needs to realize that collecting temporary profits by destroying the rainforest won’t jumpstart failing economies for long. It’s a death wish, not a solution. La Guardia’s win shows that the people do have power. However, the international community must amplify their voices, as well as holding companies accountable for their parasitic role in the climate crisis. There is only one Earth. We must all take our part in protecting it.

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