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World’s tropical forests and people imperiled by legal rollbacks under COVID-19

Mexico City
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Threats against Indigenous people and rainforests have risen during the coronavirus pandemic as governments have rolled back social and environmental safeguards to boost economic growth, land rights activists said on Thursday.

Governments in five countries with tropical forests have weakened legal safeguards to aid economic recovery, while expanding projects near native land, said a study by Forest Peoples Programme and two universities.

Amazon Brazil deforestation

File photo showing Yanomami Indians outside their Amazon jungle hut after burning and clearing the landscape, in the northern state of Roraima on 16th March, 1998. PICTURE: Reuters/Gregg Newton/File photo.

“It is wrong to prioritize economic development over the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and tropical forests, especially during a pandemic,” James Whitehead, director of FPP, a human rights group, said in a statement.

The world’s 500 million Indigenous people make up six per cent of its population, but 15 per cent of its extreme poor, according to the World Bank, often lacking legal rights to their traditional lands, which are being taken over by loggers, farmers and miners.

Three of the five countries in the study have territory in the Amazon – Brazil, Colombia and Peru – and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia host substantial rainforests, which are critical to stopping catastrophic climate change. 

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon hit a 12-year high in 2020, as President Jair Bolsonaro weakened the environmental enforcement agency and called for more commercial farming and mining to lift the region out of poverty.

Brazil passed 195 executive acts to dismantle and bypass environmental laws between March and May, 2020, compared to 16 during the same period in 2019, a local study cited in the report found.

Indonesia passed a job creation bill in October that loosened regulations to attract foreign investment but undermines Indigenous land rights, said the report, co-authored by Yale Law School and Britain’s Middlesex University. 

In a bid to stem COVID-19 infections, Colombia introduced online consultations for development projects, which the report’s authors said violates Indigenous people’s rights to culturally appropriate processes. 

Indigenous people have pushed back with legal challenges against oil exploration in Peru, demonstrations in Indonesia against land loss and protests in Brazil against a hydroelectric plant, the report said.

The rights groups urged governments to strengthen laws to protect Ondigenous people and force companies to carry out human rights and environmental due diligence on their supply chains. 

“Indigenous Peoples are seeing their rights stripped away as the lands that have long been their homes are being stripped away as well,” James Silk, a human rights professor at Yale Law School, said in a statement.



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