News | Brazil / Paraguay - Socio-ecological Transformation - COP26 - Climate Justice “Change Will Come from the Attitudes of Ordinary Citizens”

Indigenous leader Ninawa Inu argues that governments can’t be trusted to keep their climate promises


Ninawa Inu, leader and president of the Federation of the Huni Kuī people of Acre (FEPHAC). Photo: private collection

Leader and president of the Federation of the Huni Kuī people of Acre (FEPHAC), Ninawa Inu, stated that those most directly impacted by climate change did not have the opportunity to take part in the negotiations around COP26. Therefore, he and others are seeking to deliver the true information.

Eliege Fante is a journalist with a postgraduate degree in Communication and Information, and a member of the Ecojournalists Group of Rio Grande do Sul (NEJ-RS).

Elisangela Paim is a journalist and coordinator for Latin America of the climate programme at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Office in São Paulo. 

Translated by Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Ninawa represents approximately 18,000 members of the Huni Kuī people, the majority of whom live in the Brazilian state of Acre in the Amazon, on the border with Peru. Ninawa lives in a village located in the municipality of Feijó. He runs a number of indigenous projects and is involved in dialogues with international movements. He specified that he has taken part in the annual COP conferences since 2011, as well as Rio+20 (the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, 2012), outlining the local impacts of climate change, as well as repudiating the false solutions proposed by large corporations which are often negotiated with national governments but without consulting or obtaining the consent of indigenous and first nations peoples.

He spoke with Eliege Fante and Elisangela Paim of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation about the demands of indigenous peoples at COP26 and how he thinks real climate action can be achieved.

What demands did you present to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference and to whom were they addressed? How were your demands received?

There were several demands. Firstly, we sought to reject the various pieces of draft legislation currently under consideration in the Brazilian congress that run contrary to the rights of indigenous peoples and environmental rights. Secondly, to reject the false solution touted as a carbon credit programme, through deals that financialize nature and so-called “compensations” for carbon offsetting. Thirdly, we presented a law against ecocide, because around the world the governments and corporations that cause destruction continue to go unpunished — they are not held accountable for the murders and crimes committed against the environment and against people. Hence the importance of thinking about territory as a legal subject through a law against ecocide, something that is being discussed internationally.

We were well-received everywhere we went: at universities, at events within and outside COP, at parallel events. We took part in the meeting to create a coalition between the European Parliament and indigenous leaders to discuss various agreements that impact us directly, like Mercosul. We were present at several meetings, such as the one with Princess Marie-Esméralda of Belgium, and also with representatives of civil society, since the main aim of my activism is to raise awareness. I believe that change will come from the attitudes of ordinary citizens and that no real change is effected by the programmes and policies of governments.

What are the false solutions you talk about, and who is promoting them?

COP, for instance, is a false solution, generally speaking. Here, we are told that the conference seeks climate solutions, but in truth, the multinationals that pollute and cause destruction on a global scale finance these conferences and negotiate billion-dollar agreements with governments with a view to the commercialization of nature. That’s why the promise to reduce carbon emissions, to reach net zero in 50 years, is a lie. Because they believe that by paying carbon credits to governments, they will be exonerated of responsibility for their past crimes against the environment, the ecocide and genocide of previous years.

On the one hand, they believe they can compensate for the pollution they cause, and on the other, as a bonus, they receive something like the right to continue investing in regions where there is still the greatest economic interest. As a result, the corporations get to maintain their destructive industrial activities.

I believe that change will come from the attitudes of ordinary citizens and that no real change is effected by the programmes and policies of governments.

For example, one of the biggest oil-drilling firms in Canada negotiates bonuses in the Amazon Basin with the Brazilian government to end deforestation, slash-and-burn agriculture practices, and pollution. Except instead of protecting nature as it claims, the government currently takes control of these territories, using the negotiations to generate revenue. You only need to look at the draft legislation going through the Brazilian congress to see that the government actually wants to dismantle indigenous land rights and hand them over to the oil industry and other predatory industries.

What’s more, these false solutions sow division, between peoples and leaders alike, because today, representatives of institutions that sit together with governments at the negotiating table often don’t know the villages that will be impacted. Which means that they make the deals without considering the voices of those who actually suffer from oil spills, deforestation, invasions of their land, the increase of agribusiness-led monoculture, as is the case of the Guarani Kaiowá. The people who are suffering don’t have the opportunity to sit at the negotiating table. So we have to come to COP and to parallel events so people can hear the truth.

How do you rate REDD (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) projects and emissions trading schemes?

REDD projects are presented by companies to governments as possible solutions for reducing both emissions and deforestation, but they don’t work in practice. The government of my state, Acre, for instance, and other governments in the Amazon region, generally speaking, take over indigenous lands. In the case of these corporate projects with multinationals, the more institutional deals, they are brokered through governments without negotiating with indigenous peoples.

In that sense, they contradict international agreements like Convention 169, which establishes the right of affected communities to be consulted before programmes are implemented or actions are carried out that directly affect indigenous peoples. The state holds power over the land; the government holds sway in negotiations and effectively does the negotiating. My position has always been the opposite, exactly because it is one thing for a community to use its money specifically for its own investments and sometimes even to benefit from that. But my vision and my struggle are global. Because if we take action only within my community, that will not change the reality of the planet.

What results do you expect to take from COP26 back to your people?

The main result we are taking back is the attention of the people who listened to us, who believe in our struggle, who are supporting our cause. Our alliance against false solutions has grown worldwide. Institutions that previously did not have a position are today capable of seeing through the lies.

But hope as a takeaway from COP, that’s not on anyone’s agenda. Even though people are celebrating the 1.7 billion dollars obtained for protecting the Brazilian Amazon, that’s not going to solve anything. Even if that money reaches the government’s coffers, it won’t go to the communities themselves, and it won’t solve the problems of the planet. That money is tainted with the blood of the people murdered defending their lands from the pollution and destruction of the fossil fuel industry, and so on.

What socio-economic practices derived from the ancestral knowledge of the people you represent could be learned by other peoples, especially white people, which could take the place of the commodity-based agriculture that is linked to deforestation?

Our vision and conception of living well, of conservation, of engagement, is totally different from that of people who take nature as something to be bought and sold in a marketplace, negotiating it like a commodity. We are peoples who partake of ancient forms of knowledge, which we learn from nature itself, from the spirit of nature. But that’s a subject of no interest to big capital. They don’t want to learn about spirituality, about protecting the source of a river, about knowing old-growth forests. What they care about is profit, big ventures, credits they can use to pay for the continuation of their destructive activities.

What would make an actual difference … would be to return traditional lands to indigenous peoples … That would be a possibility for really ensuring that an area is protected.

What we need most urgently is to re-educate humanity, to reconnect humanity. Here in Europe, for instance, people have no connection to their ancestral origins, so they become attached to the accumulation of resources and wealth. We need to regenerate future generations, starting with the children being born now, with the youth growing up, in order to really change reality. Because our generation is already caught up in a vicious, endless cycle.

It’s illusory to think that people, like the owners of a bank or a multinational company, or careerist politicians, are going to change their mentality. Our vision is totally different. Our supermarket is our lake, our woods. Our subsistence agriculture is where the soil of Mother Earth naturally offers up its bounty. It doesn’t require pesticides or genetic modification. Those are true solutions.

What is the situation faced by your people? What are the threats and challenges?

Today, my people are facing various sorts of impact that are primarily related to climate issues. We calculate that 80 percent of the waters on our lands are contaminated, meaning our supplies of clean drinking water are limited. It’s a complicated situation because 80 percent of the illnesses that afflict us are also the result of a lack of proper sanitation. Changes are taking place in our region. The rivers we once fished in are now running dry. The forests where we hunted and gathered sustenance for our community are nearly depleted, and traditional medicines are being destroyed because cattle farming continues to encroach upon our lands. Sources of rivers are undergoing deforestation. We just experienced the most severe floods ever witnessed by our communities: 548 families were driven from their homes by the flood waters. It is difficult to reverse impacts like those without specific public policies. The biggest threat is the extinguishing of our land rights, because the draft legislation making its way through the Brazilian Congress is moving in that direction — the direction of a new genocide against our people. Without our land, we will have no culture, we will not have our histories. That’s where genocide begins.

Do the indigenous rights guaranteed by the Brazilian constitution meet the demands of first peoples? What other policies should be discussed by the Brazilian state in cooperation with your peoples?

There are only two constitutional rights of and for indigenous peoples guaranteed by the federal constitution of 1988: article 231 posits the recognition of indigenous peoples and regulates the Indigenous Statute; and article 232 recognizes the indigenous land rights and makes provisions that could meet some basic needs, but governments do not enforce it and make sure that the Brazilian state does not enforce it.

One possible investment that would make an actual difference to indigenous peoples right around the world would be to return traditional lands to indigenous peoples so that they could be maintained by their original inhabitants in such a manner that the people are given autonomy, autonomous government. That would be a possibility for really ensuring that an area was protected. We are discussing internationally the possibility of recognizing our territory as a legal subject, as well as other possibilities for creating and thinking.