“Even if they kill me, I won’t stop fighting.” These are the words of Paulo Paulino Guajajara, a forest guardian of the Arariboia Indigenous Territory in the north-eastern Amazon. Seen from space, the territory is an oasis of green surrounded by beige scratches of deforestation. It is home to around 14,000 Guajajara people, and the Awá, an un-contacted tribe.
In November of 2019, while working to defend the land, Paulino was killed by illegal loggers in an ambush. One year on from his tragic death, COVID-19 has spread through the rainforest, and indigenous communities have been at the frontline of a fight that has intensified amid the pandemic.
Against this backdrop, hopes 2020 would be a moment of profound change – or at least a pause in environmental destruction – seem idealistic.
“This pandemic was a reflection of the way we are treating nature, so we saw awareness increasing,” says Ilan Zugman, climate campaign group 350.org’s Managing Director for Latin America. “But not enough to make significant change in our society from the decision-makers.”
Paulo Paulino Guajajara in September of 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
According to a UN report, nations are planning to ramp up production of oil, coal and gas by 2 percent a year, while G20 countries are giving 50 percent more coronavirus recovery funding to fossil fuels than to green energy. The forces which brought the planet to a state of emergency have not vanished. And nowhere is that clearer than in communities like Paulino’s.
“The guardians haven't stopped working as a result of the virus, because unfortunately the invaders are using the virus as an excuse to invade even more heavily,” says Sarah Shenker, head of Survival International’s Brasil office. “COVID [is] like a triple whammy”.
Alongside the impunity invaders have felt for decades, and the appointment of Jair Bolsonaro as President, “what we've seen in some areas is different action, or less action, by some government agencies, which means that, even more than before, people are left to fend for themselves and protect their forests”, says Shenker. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged to its highest point since 2008 this year, as an area seven times the size of London was felled between August of 2019 and July of 2020, an increase of almost 10 percent on the previous year. Environment minister Ricardo Salles expressed a wish to roll back environmental protections while the public is distracted by COVID-19.
Indigenous peoples’ struggle to protect their land against an onslaught of deforestation for cattle ranches, mining and other agribusiness is also a struggle to protect the entire planet, since the Amazon rainforest preserves vital biodiversity and acts as a carbon sink. Fortunately, their resolve has only strengthened. The Yanomami people on the Venezuela-Brazil border launched the Miners Out, Covid Out campaign in an effort to persuade the government to evict up to 20,000 illegal gold miners in their territory. Elsewhere, activists are opposing sinister proposals and draft bills, such as a mining bill that would “open up indigenous territories to large scale mining and destroy them, and possibly wipe out un-contacted tribes”, says Shenker. “I'm sure that without that pressure being led by the indigenous movement, what we'd be seeing would be a much worse situation.”
Justin Gosling is an ex-police detective who consults on how to investigate wildlife crime. He argues the penny hasn’t dropped about the scale of the risks this kind of crime can pose, such as climate change and pandemics.
“I think there was a perception early on – and almost a celebration – of the fact that this is the breakthrough we need,” he says. “People were talking about: 'Wow, suddenly the world's going to see the impact of wildlife trade, of how we abuse species and exploit them and exploit habitats'. I'm not sure that we're seeing that actually take place now… The wildlife trade is a massive economy, [and] enforcing it is not a priority, so I think we'll see things regain some sort of normality [next year].”
Others say the perception of threat has shifted. Dr Richard Smith, chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, tells VICE World News: "While climate action was previously seen by many as a 'nice to have', it's now widely acknowledged [because of COVID-19] to be an essential part of the job of protecting public health.”
Amid efforts to shift perceptions, CO2 levels remain dangerous. What became of this year’s “historic” drop in emissions? “The troubling news – although this has not come as a surprise to a lot of people – [is that it] seems to have been, relatively, a blip,” says Sam Chetan Welsh, a political campaigner for Greenpeace. “Emissions are still expected to increase by the end of this year. The other trend we're seeing is that a lot of our pre-lockdown trends that we were celebrating moving away from during lockdown are gradually returning. In most areas in the UK, traffic is back to around 90 percent of pre-lockdown level.”
Even with a 4 to 7 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, emission sources remain bigger than the carbon sinks, so the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has continued to rise, explains Niklas Hagelberg of the United Nations Environment Programme. “For concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere to stabilise, we need solutions that decarbonise our energy, food production, transport systems. While that process has started – for example, in renewable energy – it has not yet delivered a sufficient amount of reductions in emissions.”
A man looks at the Oriental Pearl TV Tower on a hazy day in Shanghai. Photo: Carlos Barria / Reuters
Campaigns for systemic change may have started to bear fruit. “The glass half full view is: the fact that the [UK] government felt there was a need to do a climate speech during a pandemic at all is very positive, and certainly a massive change from where our priorities were in 2008,” says Chetan Welsh. The UK government is “using language [Greenpeace] would around recovering communities in the north through green investment... But there’s a very big question as to whether any of that will materialise.”
The UK’s green stimulus is tens of billions lower than France and Germany’s, and the EU is currently considered the global frontrunner in terms of greening the economic recovery, according to the Guardian.
“A significant game-changer has been the decision by the European Council, in July, for the European financing for the next seven years,” says Vivian Loonela, an EU Commission spokesperson. “We have the commitment that for the €1.8 trillion that will be the next EU spending over the next seven years, 30 percent will go to climate-related spending. That's 5 percent higher than the Commission had already duly proposed.”
EU member states are in discussions to agree a Climate Law that will create a legally binding goal to slash emissions 55 percent by 2030, though campaigners argue 65 percent is necessary.
In general, encouraging commitments from leaders in the global north are positive, but not sufficient, says 350.org's Zugman. “They are saying, ‘OK, we are going to do that in my country, in my region.’ Of course, it is important that they are doing that in their countries, but they also need to control and regulate what companies and banks from their countries are doing abroad. I think it's important to have regulations on that side as well.
“From the global perspective,” he says, “[this year] was another missed opportunity. I don’t think we are really seeing speech being transformed into good and strong actions.”
Environmentalists across the planet will continue to fight for those actions. Reflecting on the resilience of indigenous peoples across the Brazilian Amazon, Sarah Shenker says, “It's been a tough time, but they haven't stopped fighting, and they never will.”