Response: April 2015 Issue

Climate Change and Latin America

Climate Change and Latin America
Pedro Rodolfo Orteaga, a farmer, stands on the bed of a river that has gone dry since a Canadian mining company built a gold mine nearby.

Julia Pérez and Ergilia Rengifo traveled for more than a week to reach Lima from their village deep in the Peruvian rainforest, where their husbands were murdered in late August.

The two women had painted red patterns on their faces and wore simple dresses of coarse brown fabric. Both carried infants in their arms.

Ms. Perez's husband, Edwin Chota, was president of the Asháninka Indian community of Saweto and had been fighting for several years to evict illegal loggers from the community's land and gain official title to it. He and Ms. Rengifo's husband Jorge Ríos, along with two other men, were making a two-day trek on foot to a village across the Brazilian border when they were ambushed and killed.

Ms. Rengifo had a month-old baby at the time. Ms. Pérez was pregnant. When her son was born three months after his father was killed, she named him Edwin.

"We won't stop fighting trying to get rights to our land," Ms. Rengifo said when she arrived in Lima to demand official action on her husband's murder. "We want justice."

Survival depends on clean and healthy environment

Throughout Latin America, the survival of indigenous people and small farming communities depends on having a safe and healthy environment, with clean water for their families, animals and crops. But with a growing global demand for minerals, oil and wood, those communities are increasingly being pushed aside by logging, mining and oil companies as well as large farms and cattle ranches. These encounters too often turn deadly.

Conflicts over land rights and natural resources put people in peril in many parts of Latin America—not only in the Amazon but also in the Andes Mountains, Central America and Mexico. For people who stand up for their right to a clean, safe and healthy environment and the right to manage their land and its resources, Latin America is a dangerous place to live.

Worldwide, more than 900 people from 35 countries are known to have been killed between 2002 and 2013 while defending their right to land and a healthy environment, according to a report by Global Witness, a London-based human rights group. Four out of five of the dead were in Latin America.

In Brazil, 448 people were murdered in environmental conflicts during that period. Honduras, a country of only 8 million people, saw 109 killings. There have been 58 deaths in Peru, 52 in Colombia and 40 in Mexico, although Global Witness says its figures are probably low.

In the Amazon, many conflicts, like the one in Saweto, involve illegal loggers. In August 2014 in the Brazilian state of Maranhão, Ka'apor people seized loggers and drove them out of their territory when government officials failed to respond to the Indian communities' requests for assistance.

In the Brazilian state of Acre and Peru's Madre de Dios region, nomadic groups that traditionally shun contact with the outside world have recently approached settlements, taking food and tools. The encounters are dangerous, both because they could turn violent and because the nomadic groups lack defenses against illnesses as common as a head cold. Experts say the people may be fleeing illegal loggers or drug traffickers who are encroaching on their territory.

Stewards of forest lack land rights

Indigenous people, especially, fight for the forests that provide them with food to eat, palm leaves to thatch the roofs of their houses, medicinal plants and spiritual contact with their surroundings and deceased relatives.

Scientific studies have confirmed the value of their stewardship, finding that deforestation rates are generally lower in indigenous territories than in the areas around them. Sometimes there is even more deforestation in national parks than on indigenous lands, even though parks are officially protected.

In many parts of the Amazon, communities lack legal title to their land, either because they are so far from towns that filing the paperwork is too time consuming and expensive or because authorities are slow to process their requests.

With no title, they do not show up on official maps. So when a company seeks permission to begin logging, drill for oil, dig for minerals or clear forests to plant oil palm, soybeans or other crops, government officials often grant it without knowing that people live there, and without bothering to check.

Indigenous communities cannot effectively protect their forests and territory if they do not have legal title, their leaders say.

"We are part of the forest, you are part of the forest. Our Mother Earth is suffering," Cándido Mezúa, who heads the National Coordinating Committee of Indigenous People of Panama, told participants in last December's climate change conference in Lima.

"You need us and we need other people," he said. "We need to live together, but let's live together on equal terms."

Extractive industries spark conflict

After Europeans arrived in what is now Latin America, the region's rich mineral wealth drove the global economy for more than a century, and thousands—some say hundreds of thousands—of Indians died in the mines.

Business is booming again as countries seek to increase their revenues and lower their poverty rates by promoting extractive industries like mining.

Guatemala has seen an influx of Canadian prospecting companies in recent years. Most of the areas where the mines are located are home to small, indigenous farming communities, many still bearing scars of the political violence of the 1980s, and resistance to the mines has been met with new violence and assassinations.

Mines have also sparked protests in various parts of Peru, where the problem is not just open-pit mining by large companies but also unregulated, small-scale mining by miners who use mercury or cyanide to extract gold from sand or ore. In various parts of the Amazon basin, studies have found alarming levels of mercury in fish and in the hair of people who eat the fish.

Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Brazil have all sent military or police troops into Amazonian mining camps to try to evict miners, but with international gold prices high and corruption a constant problem, not much has changed.

Oil is another source of both pollution and conflict.

Drilling along a belt of petroleum deposits that stretches from Venezuela through Colombia and Ecuador to northern Peru has left pools of oil in forests and fouled streams and rivers where people fish to feed their families.

In northern Ecuador, communities fought for decades for cleanup of waste from oil drilling that was dumped into unlined pits or poured into streams when Texaco operated those fields. In 2011, an Ecuadoran court issued an $18 billion judgment against Chevron, which had bought Texaco. The amount was cut in half upon appeal, and the acrimonious dispute is still in the courts.

A similar case is brewing in northern Peru, where the Argentinian company Pluspetrol (which took over from U.S. company Occidental Petroleum) operates some of the oldest fields in the country. Achuar Indians have seized company facilities several times in an effort to pressure Pluspetrol and the government to clean up the spill.

Ecuador, already a South American oil producer, is wooing foreign companies to drill for oil in the southern part of the country, including the biologically rich Yasuní National Park. There was so much opposition to drilling in the park that the government agreed to leave the oil in the ground if it could receive compensation for half the revenues it would have realized from the drilling. Several countries pledged contributions, but the deal ultimately fell through.

Oil is Ecuador's main source of revenue, and the government says drilling is necessary to raise money to invest in social services and lower the poverty rate. Indigenous and environmental groups are protesting, especially against the plan to drill in Yasuní. Not only would it damage one of the world's most sensitive and highly biodiverse ecosystems, they say, but it would also endanger indigenous people living in the area, some of whom shun outsiders.

Opponents of the Yasuní drilling also note that fossil fuels, including oil, are responsible for climate change, and that Ecuador and other countries in the region are already suffering its effects.

Adjusting to a changing climate

In Ecuador and neighboring Peru, farmers have been watching nervously as the mountains "turn black." The glaciers that have blanketed the Andes with white year-round for generations are retreating as the climate warms.

Families that depend on glacier melt water for their livestock during the dry winter months worry that the supply will run short. Potato farmers who plant their crops high up the slopes, where colder temperatures ward off pests and disease, must plow fields farther and farther uphill.

Farmers throughout the region say climate change has brought uncertainty. The climate signals by which they always planted no longer work, they say. Rains and frost come out of season, increasing the risk that they will lose their harvest to bad weather.

Droughts and flooding have hit the region hard in recent years. Although it is impossible to say with certainty that those phenomena are due to global warming, scientists say climate change makes more frequent weather extremes more likely.

In early 2014, after nearly two months of endless rain, Tacana Indian families along the Tuichi and Beni rivers in northern Bolivia fled their homes when the river overflowed its banks and the level rose to the roofs. People who had very little to start with lost everything.

Other parts of the region have too little water. Drought has ruined coffee crops in Brazil and threatened to leave the country's largest city without drinking water. In Central America, a prolonged drought this year has caused huge crop losses in Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Scientists warn that such events could become more frequent in the future, and countries are beginning to seek ways to adapt to a world that is warmer and less predictable

Saving some forest for the future

In the 1980s, the water level in the river where Ema Tapullima lived dropped so dangerously low that a young woman and her baby died because there was no way to transport them to a hospital. So Ms. Tapullima and others moved to Puerto Prado, a Kukama Indian community a short boat ride up the Marañón River from the town of Nauta, in the Amazon region of northeast Peru.

The displaced families bought a 1,300-acre farm. The first thing they did was set aside about 250 acres in a private conservation area called the Iwirati Natural Paradise, building trails where visitors learn about native plants and animals and admire the huge pads of the Victoria regia lily.

They also arranged for boats carrying tourists to stop at the community, where women make baskets, plates, animals and other handcrafts out of palm fronds. Ms. Tapullima says the families are reclaiming their Kukama heritage, and although her generation was discouraged from speaking it, their children are learning Kukama in school.

Ms. Tapullima is president of the community. In 2013, she who won a national environmental citizenship award.

"If we don't conserve the forest, our children will never know about the plants and the animals," she said, looking uphill toward the forest. "We're doing it for them. This is their inheritance."

Barbara Fraser is a U.S. journalist who writes about environmental issues in Latin America. She is based in Peru and blogs at

Posted or updated: 4/1/2015 11:00:00 PM