Why Panama's indigenous pulled out of the UN's REDD program

June 25, 2013

An Interview with Cacique Betanio Chiquidama, National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples of Panama

This week in Lombok, Indonesia, the Policy Board of the United Nations climate change program known as UNREDD is addressing the first major test of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the United Nations (UN DRIP), which recognizes the right of Indigenous People to stop projects in their territories that could endanger their traditions and livelihoods.

The National Coordinating Body of the Indigenous People of Panama (COONAPIP) pulled out of UNREDD’s national program in February and have called on the United Nations to close the program. They say the program failed to recognize their right to determine what happens to their forests, and the right to participate in projects that affect them.

COONAPIP leader Betanio Chiquidama is in Lombok this week to witness the discussion. The following is translated from a recent interview he gave to Fabio Viquez.

Rainforest in Panama

Fabio Viquez: What led Indigenous leaders to demand that UNREDD close its program in Panama?

Cacique Betanio Chiquidama: First, we were not really allowed to participate in the program’s design. That is unacceptable. We are not simply stakeholders in this process – we are the owners of the majority of the country’s forests, and we have the right to determine what happens to them.

Second, we initially accepted the program so it could go forward. But when we finally got the documents explaining what they planned to do, we were concerned about the lack of recognition of our rights.

In response we submitted 19 points we said were needed to ensure legal protections for our territorial rights, and to strengthen our institutions and ensure the participation of Indigenous Peoples in the program, among others.

Nonetheless, the UN moved ahead as they had originally planned, without addressing our concerns. And COONAPIP, the group designated by our leaders to negotiate the terms of the national UN REDD program, had no real say in the process.

Fabio Viquez: A second important actor here has been the Government of Panama, through the national environmental agency (known as ANAM). How would you describe their role?

Cacique Betanio Chiquidama: As proposed, Panama’s REDD plan failed to guarantee our rights over lands that are ours under national law. The way it is written, the plan would allow future governments to invest in our territories and remove the natural resources that remain.

Panama’s environment agency (ANAM) has shown it lacks the capacity to confront illegal deforestation, so it already lacks credibility among Indigenous Peoples. The agency has tried unsuccessfully to impose REDD on us in Panama in a form that we could not accept.

We have reason to be concerned. Already we are seeing the laws amended to exploit resources in mining, hydroelectric power, logging and tourism. National and local governments are preparing for a final assault on our natural resources, and this cannot be allowed.

Fabio Viquez: COONAPIP has asked UN REDD to close its local program in Panama Is this deathblow to such efforts, or is it possible that REDD could be revived? Would you be willing to work on a new program?

Cacique Betanio Chiquidama: As an indigenous Emberá leader, my sense is that we could return to the negotiating table to discuss REDD, but UNREDD would have to come to our leaders with a new focus, one that addresses our concerns, and in which indigenous experts participate in the design from the start. Otherwise, we will not be interested in negotiations.

Fabio Viquez: What are the conditions under which COONAPIP would be willing to take part in a new initiative?

Cacique Betanio Chiquidama: Legislation would have to be enacted to support the participation of indigenous peoples. We cannot accept laws that weaken our rights. We have experts, people with great traditional or empirical knowledge, who need to be incorporated into the process. We also want measures to strengthen our traditional institutions, which are the only ones that address our peoples’ needs.

Fabio Viquez: How can REDD benefit the Indigenous Peoples of Panama, if indeed a program were designed in a way that respected your role and contributions to forest management?

Cacique Betanio Chiquidama: REDD in Panama could help to protect and even expand the land now covered with forests. We could create a new model for supporting the role of Indigenous Peoples in caring for forests worldwide, and this would benefit all of us.

The Indigenous People of Panama are not opposed to development; we ask only that it benefit everyone, and not just big corporations that only want to exploit the resources.

Fabio Viquez: What does COONAPIP hope will happen at the UN REDD Policy Board meeting this week, now that the UN investigators reported that the Indigenous People of Panama had good reason to act as you did?

Cacique Betanio Chiquidama: It would a terrible pity if this UN agency were to ignore our concerns. We hope they will be willing to try something new—not only for Panama, but also for the world. The initial report of UNREDD’s own investigation shows that they acted incorrectly. Now they have a chance to get this right, by abandoning their current approach, and working to design something better—with the Indigenous Peoples who own the forests.

AUTHOR: Rhett Butler founded Mongabay in 1999. He currently serves as president, head writer, and chief editor.

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Why Panama's indigenous pulled out of the UN's REDD program.